4 stars. The dry humor of Scott Meyer’s Master of Formalities is the perfect foil for its ludicrous events, and his situations are both a riotous sendup of the comedy of manners genre and a skewering of social norms. Two millennia after humans leave Earth, House Jakabitus and House Hahn, rulers of their respective planets, are embroiled in a generations-long war. The staff that serves the Jakabitus family has their decorum severely upset when Hennik, the boorish son of the Hahn ruler, is captured and “adopted” by their employers. Wollard serves as the Master of Formalities–think head butler, chief strategist, and historian rolled into one–and he sees a chance to end the conflict between the two rivals.
I came to read former stand-up comedian Scott Meyer through his Basic Instructions comics, which excel at presenting a caption that provides a straightforward framework and using absurd text and situations in the drawings and dialog to hilarious effect. In this book, the mannerly staff gives the framework and the situations provide the character and situational comedy.
The characters are the real strength of Master of Formalities. Each of the staff members has a unique personality and believable motivations. Rayzo Jakabitus is an especially well-done character, and his struggles with his adopted “brother” Hennik, and how they affect his relationship with his father, were my favorite parts of the book.
The societal farces that Meyer presents bring a combination of knowing chuckles and sad shakes of the head. The sections dealing with sports and with travel are especially amusing, as they hit pretty close to modern life.
I feel that some of the plot threads were left too open, especially that of former chef turned soldier Gint and his wife Umily, but that is my only complaint about this novel.
Meyer describes Master of Formalities as Downton Abbey meets Dune, and that’s as apt a description as anything for this slyly funny volume.