Majestrum: An homage to Vance

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsscience fiction fantasy book reviews Matthew Hughes MajestrumMajestrum by Matthew Hughes

Majestrum is a relatively short science fantasy set in our own far-future universe which has been colonized far and wide by humans from Old Earth. The protagonist, Henghis Hapthorn, is a “discriminator” (“he unravels conundrums, picks apart puzzles, uncovers enigmas”) who uses his keen logical skills to solve mysteries.

But some strange stuff is going on: Mr Hapthorn’s integrator (a sentient computer which assists him in his work) has recently donned flesh and blood and become more like a familiar than a computer. Also, the small intuitive part of Henghis’s psyche has suddenly asserted itself as a separate personality which shares Henghis’s brain and body. These occurrences seem to indicate that sympathetic association (magic), which waxes and wanes across the eons, is now rising again. And soon Henghis Hapthorn’s double personality and his familiar find themselves hunting an ancient evil force which is trying to resurface.

Majestrum is a fast-paced novel which reads much like a crime thriller (Matthew Hughes writes those under the name Matt Hughes) with a heavy dose of sarcasm, irony, and dry humor. Hughes is known to be a Jack Vance fan (read his appreciation of Jack Vance which he wrote for us upon that author’s death), and this influence is obvious. The novel reads much like an homage to Vance. Even the cover art was created by Tom Kidd who does much of Vance’s cover art. Majestrum and Hughes’ other ARCHONATE novels are set in a Dying Earth universe that’s very similar to Vance’s famous setting. The writing style is purposely magniloquent with numerous ten-dollar words (e.g., peregrinations, transmogrification, pansophical, ratiocination) and the characters “ascend” rather than go up, “peruse” instead of read, and “ascertain” instead of figure out. As in a Vance novel, all of the characters speak this way, not just the upper crust.

Hughes imitates Vance’s droll humor and absurd plotting perfectly, and there are many laugh-out-loud moments such as when Henghis has to put on upper-class ornamentation so that the nobles can perceive him, when his integrator/familiar falls asleep at crucial moments, and when hardened criminals are given to the Corps of Buffoons, fitted with coercion suits, and compelled to publicly act in bawdy plays. Even the character names are funny and noticeably Vancian: Glam Botch, Bristal Baxandall, Vhobald Hammis.

Despite the obvious mimicry, Hughes’ characters, ideas, and plot are original, making Majestrum an inventive and entertaining novel in its own right, and a perfect read for a Vance fan who has tragically run out of Vance to read. Fortunately, there are several more books in Hughes’ ARCHONATE universe.

I listened to Audible Frontiers’ recent version which was read by David Marantz. It took me a little while to warm up to Marantz, but I soon decided that his voice, which lacked much inflection or enthusiasm, fit Hughes’ droll style and Henghis Hapthorn’s personality nicely. I recommend Majestrum on audio, but if you don’t like it immediately, give it a few chapters and I think you’ll change your mind.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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