Majestrum - Matthew Hughes (2006)

Majestrum, subtitled "A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn," is the first book in a series of tales featuring "the foremost freelance discriminator" of a far future "Old Earth." The setting is at a point where technology is about to enter a period of decline and magic is about to return to ascendancy, part of a cycle which has been repeated numerous times we are told. Hapthorn is a detective in the classic vein with more than a simple nod to Sherlock Holmes, although less than a full pastiche.

The plot, as one would expect, revolves around the tension between the "highly calibrated mind" of a scientific detective faced with the possibility of magic involved in a case. The ground covered here is something of an inversion of the idea covered by quite a few authors over the years - "The Magic Goes Away" by Niven comes to mind - and a look at the cycle coming back around to magic is refreshing. Hapthorn has, in a backstory which is never fully explained, faced a thaumaturge with the result that his intuitive faculty has been split off into a separate sort of consciousness sharing his head. The adventure also caused his "integrator,"a sort of programmed hardware/software agent and AI, to turn into a familiar which serves the same function.

The story is essentially a mystery, which means that it can not be too fully explicated without giving away the solution. Hapthorn is drawn into a complicated plot when an aristocrat, Lord Afre, hires him for what seems like a straightforward investigation into his daughter's suitor. Afre fears that the suitor is a gold-digger and wishes him investigated. Hughes starts from this well-trodden ground and develops a complicated and devious plot. Some of the twists and turns will be no surprise to those familiar with the mystery genre, but they are handled deftly enough.

Hughes style is consciously artificial; it reads like someone writing in a mock Victorian style, which is part of the reason why there is a Holmesian feel. It is affected, but works well with the plot and setting. The first chapter or so took a little getting used to, but then it settled down and was actually quite delightful. Hughes handles his characters moderately well, although to be fair, the only ones who truly matter are Hapthorn himself, his "other self" and his integrator/familiar. All the others are mere supporting characters, sketched in sufficiently for the short time they are present in the narrative.

The book, thus, is concerned almost exclusively with Hapthorn as articulated in Hughes' style. Readers who are not engaged by Hapthorn will find little else to distract them; although the plot is sturdy enough, the true meat is Hapthorn and his inner conflicts. Fortunately, that's enough.

Overall Grade: B

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