Henghis Hapthorn is one of the top discriminators in the Ten Thousand Worlds. A Sherlock Holmes of the future, he relies on careful observation and scientific reasoning to investigate and solve the problems of Old Earth aristocrats. With the assistance of his electronic integrator, he sifts through clues and treks across the galaxy to hunt down the solution to the case.
Or at least, that was Henghis Hapthorn. Unfortunately for him, his last investigation brought him face-to-face with an uncomfortable truth about the universe. Reality, it seems, operates in a cyclical pattern, alternating ages of science and reason with ages of "sympathetic association," or magic. Hapthorn's age is on the brink of such a turn, and as a result, pockets of magical reality are suddenly appearing in Hapthorn's logically ordered universe.
That would be bad enough, but for Hapthorn, the situation gets worse. A chance encounter with a reality pocket on his last assignment has transformed his trusty electronic assistant into a small, fruit-eating animal with a mind of its own. Worse, Hapthorn's personality has been cleaved in two by his magical encounter: logical, rational Hapthorn now shares a body with an intuitive version of himself—the magician who will supplant Hapthorn once the age of magic fully arrives.
The beleaguered Hapthorn distracts himself from his magical worries with a new case. Lord Arfe, a bewildered, ineffectual aristocrat, is worried about his daughter's suitor. He wants Hapthorn to investigate the young man and find out what his true intentions are. What should be a routine case, however, soon turns into a planet-hopping odyssey, and before long Hapthorn finds himself having to call on his intuitive side for help. For the young man Hapthorn is investigating is tied, somehow, to a political conspiracy formed in the previous age of magic, and to an extradimensional threat to the next.
The plot of Majestrum—entertaining though it is—is perhaps more meandering than it needed to be, and ultimately forgettable. What matters here isn't so much the mystery as the interaction of the three (or is it two?) central characters. Hapthorn, his other half, and his furry assistant squabble, make pointed remarks, consume vast quantities of fruit and omelets and—at least part of the time—cooperate in pulling the wool over the eyes of Hapthorn's plodding detective rival. Hughes's characterization of the detective duo/trio is charming, and his dialogue and ironic turns of phrase skillful; exactly what you want in a series of this kind.
The satirical aspects of Hughes's world building are also enjoyable. For example, this is a universe in which generations of aristocrats have evolved in response to a selection pressure in favor of ignoring their underlings. The new human subspecies "could see rank quite clearly, and could perceive details of clothing and accessories so long as they were fashionable," Hapthorn notes as he prepares for an interview. "Persons who possessed neither title nor office often found it difficult to attract and hold their attention, although their household servants were able to do so by adopting specific postures and gestures while wearing livery" (3). Hapthorn is attuned to deducing people's weaknesses and is thus able to move through aristocratic spheres with relative ease, although he finds wearing fancy cufflinks is often a necessary step in securing his clients' attention.
The conclusion of the novel leaves something to be desired in its assertion of intuition over scientific reasoning: some readers will be left, like Hapthorn, throwing their hands up in disgust at the convenient illogic of it all. But nevertheless, Hapthorn gets his man, evil and good characters get their due, and we are left knowing that further adventures are just over the horizon. In other words, Hughes's conclusion does its job, and the book's promising mix of science fantasy, mild satire, and mystery looks to be replicated in a sequel is that is already forthcoming.
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