The Spiral Labyrinth by Matthew Hughes. Review by Roger Redmond
This is an enjoyable and quick read coming in at a slender 210 pages. I must confess to being not so keen on it in the beginning as I felt a bit lost. The book is a sequel to Majestrum, which I had never read, and seems to pick up right where its predecessor left off. While having read the first book doesn't seem necessary to following the plot, the world Hughes portrays has its own vocabulary and has an organization to it that left me in the dark as to what exactly was happening. However, this mild discomfort quickly faded as the book proceeded, as it isn't difficult to come up to speed.
The protagonist is one Henghis Hapthorn, a discriminator (read PI/detective) in a futuristic world of space travel and super speed, semi-sentient computer assistants. Hapthorn's own personal integrator (the term for those computer assistants) has somehow been transformed into a creature known as a grinnet (a wizard's familiar), and Hapthorn shares a consciousness with his distinctly independent "intuitive" half Osk Rievor. This is all made evident in the first two pages and is presumably explained in Majestrum. Once oriented to this though, the book sort of meanders its way to the main body of its plot at which point the narrative progresses rapidly.
The basic plot is one of the standards of SFF, basically the man out of time scenario. The highly intellectual and rational Hapthorn finds himself transported forward in time to an era where magic and its manipulation by will are dominant over science and rationalism. Such an era had existed in the past as well and there were already signs of its reemergence in Hapthorn's era. It was Rievor's interest in, and research of, magic that ultimately leads to Hapthorn's dilemma, which is made worse by Rievor's absence. He does still have his grinnet though, which maintains all its knowledge and abilities and becomes a fairly important character. In this future world he becomes enmeshed in a power struggle among five wizards whose interest in him is propelled by the fact that something far more powerful than any of them is also interested in him. All Hapthorn wants, of course, is to get back home in one piece.
The plot may be a bit of a fantasy trope, but Hughes' handling of it is not at all routine. Crashing the genres of sci-fi and fantasy together, and especially noting the many commonalities, Hughes handles the scenario with more humor than most and doesn't get bogged down with trying to explain why these two cycles alternate or if there is any grand scheme to it. Freed of these epic inducing attempts, the book is a fairly lightweight bit of escapist fun that doesn't require too much critical thought or reflection. While this seems to be exactly what the book was intended to be, there was at least one motif I would have liked to have seen delved into more deeply. I did mention that the computers are semi-sentient, and the rise to actual self awareness of an AI is standard sci-fi fare, but Hughes' portrayal of the grinnet, an AI that finds itself in an actual full fledged biological body with all that entails, was quite interesting and this was one theme I would have liked more of. But that is only a tiny quibble and just goes to show how much I actually liked this story. I don't commonly wish books were longer.
It should be noted that while the book is rather lighthearted in general, there are some rather cruel and brutal moments, so it's not all fun and games. The book also ends with a surprisingly poignant moment of bitter-sweetness. And I may have detected a bit of wry social commentary, although that may just be my personal gloss. There seems little room for doubt that Hughes would consider the logic-driven era of rationality to be superior to the will-driven era of magic. The five wizards are kind of like petulant children looking to edge out the others with the biggest boom. The uneasy truce of equal powers reminded me of nothing so much as the Cold War and its operating theory of Mutually Assured Destruction (or "The Balance of Terror" for those of a more literary bent and/or Star Trek fans). In short, our real world may superficially resemble Hapthorn's imperfect contemporary world more, but may actually be more like the even more imperfect world of will and magic he finds himself in.
The bottom line, however, is that The Spiral Labyrinth is a quick and entertaining read and is worth at least checking out if your SFF tastes desire a break from the epic or longwinded. Personally, I am likely at some point to seek out more of Hapthorn's adventures.
Roger Redmond is a recent law school graduate and long-time SFF fan who lives in Pittsburgh. His reviews have also been published on SabrinaSpiher.com