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Book Review: The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes

# Genre: Mystery, Space Opera, Adventure, Space Fantasy
# Paperback: 256 pages
# Publisher: Night Shade Books
# Publication Date: November 12, 2008
# ISBN-10: 1597800937
# ISBN-13: 978-1597800938
# Author’s Website: Matthew Hughes

One of the most unusual novels you may encounter, The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes, mixes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery to tell a tale fit for a contemporary fantasy, set in the far future, where magic is returning to replace science as the dominating force in the universe.

In this world lives Henghis Hapthorn, a discriminator and empiricist who is resisting with all his will the replacement of science and logic as the function of the universe into one born of chaos and illogical occurrences. As a discriminator, Henghis is often called upon to use his Sherlock Holmes-style intelligence and logical problem-solving to explain the unexplainable. Hired to find a missing man, Hapthorn soon finds that he is personally embroiled in the matter, and that something is searching for him, bending space and time to call out to the universe “Bring me Apthorn!”

Written in a style reminiscent of Conan Doyle, Hughes contribution to the science fiction field is not wholly unique, but it is supremely entertaining. Similarities to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth are evident, as are some to Mark Chadbourn’s Age of Misrule. But these are mostly superficial and related to the change from a logical universe to one governed by the unreasonable rules of magic. Hughes’ own story treads other ground in its intelligent and entertaining way.
Some knowledge of the previous novel Majestrum is helpful, but Hughes writing is clear enough that it is fairly easy to get the background on Hapthorn without having to read the first book. And the story is completely contained inside the cover – there is no teaser at the end for the next book or large plot thread left hanging.

Hughes tells a mystery, set in the far future, where magic and science are intermingled, though magic (known as sympathetic association) is slowly becoming the dominant method by which the universe operates. But there are still spaceships, intelligent computers, weird aliens and all the other features of a great science fiction tale. It is in the addition of magic, and the encounters Hepthorn has when thrown far forward into time, that we see some of the classic elements of fantasy – swords, villains, and medieval scenery. This mix and match of plots, background, and tropes add to the great fun of the novel.

Hughes has written especially great dialogue. The narrative centers entirely on Hapthorn, and with his strange companions he engages in a much witty repartee that always brings a smile to the reader’s face. The novel just becomes easily comfortable, and Henghis Hapthorn a character we like and appreciate for his intelligence and confidence. He is a Victorian hero in a far-flung future.

I highly recommend The Spiral Labyrinth. Hughes is a superb writer, one whose prose is easily comfortable and familiar, but who also writes a mystery of unusual setting and details that has a surprise ending that should have been self-evident from the text, yet is surprising all the same. We will hopefully see much more of the character of Henghis Hapthorn in future novels and stories.