Cover of Vellum

Hal Duncan
501 pages
published in 2005

It's rare that you get to read a book about which you can genuinely say that you'll either love it or hate it. Usually this phrase is just hype, an attempt to make a book seem more controversial than it really is. Most books just bimble along without evoking either great hatred or great love in their readers. Vellum however is not such a book. It is genuinely a book you'll love or loathe becauses, depending on your feelings, it's either an incredibly stylish tour de force remaking of the fantasy novel, or self indulgent bloated nonsense, with glitzy prose masking a story devoid of any meaning. Myself, I can find some sympathy for both readings.

Hal Duncan is a new author; Vellum his first published novel. He seems to fit in loosely with that generation of fantasy writers that includes China Miéville, Justina Robson, Jeff VanderMeer and Susanna Clarke. I must admit he only appeared on my radar last year, when his name cropped up on various science fiction blogs, which is why when I saw this book in the library I took a gamble on it. A gamble that paid off, fortunately. Vellum is an ambitious book, both in the story it tells as in how it tells it, that almost manages to fulfill its ambitions.

I'm not sure whether it's not better to come to this book completely without preconceptions, like I did, because quite a lot of the pleasure I got from reading this book was figuring out the story and meta-story in it, making the connections so to speak. Having read several reviews afterwards I found that the synopsises given would've probably prejudiced me against the book had I read them earlier, as they only provide the barest sketch of what's going on in Vellum while making it sound derivative.

Let's talk structure therefore. Vellum is divided into two books, each of which is again divided into seven chapters (a number that echoes throughout the book), with errata between each chapter. There's also a prologue and an epilogue to Vellum as a whole. What drew me into the story was the prologue, which has Reynald Carter breaking into his university's library to steal the Book of All Hours, which is supposed to be either a book made in Heaven recording everybody and everything, or a book made in Hell doing the same thing. When he starts reading it, he finds out that it's a series of progressively larger scale maps, starting with a map of the university building he's in, with each next map revealing a world that is almost, but not quite like the world Reynald knows, finally revealing the entire world with its familiar continents to be just a small part of a much larger one.

This is exactly the sort of thing what I'm looking for in a science fiction or fantasy story, that sense of wonder, of conceptual breakthrough when the writer makes clear that the world you think you're living in is actually nothing like what you think it is, but just a small part of a far greater whole. It's one of the hoariest cliches of science fiction, so very often nothing more than a cheap thrill, but when it's done well, as Hal Duncan manages here, it sends chills down your spine.

What's more, the Book of All Hours -named of course for the medieval book of hours- is just one part of the world Duncan has created, only the blueprint of reality. Reality itself is the Vellum, which Duncan describes as three dimensional time, where you travel not just linearly in time from past to future, but also sideways between alternate worlds and vertically, between older and newer versions of the same world, or story, so to speak. Most people are not aware of the nature of reality, but those that do, the unkin, can manipulate it to some extent, though they also become bound up in the stories that the Vellum consists of. The earliest Unkin were neolithic shamans and the like who used the Vellum's power to become gods; it used to be that there were thousands of gods and demons, but that was before the Covenant, which has united most unkin behind it and killed most of the rest, to create order in the Vellum, which in turn has created a resistance movement against it. Some unkin are of course less than pleased with this all and try to stay out of the war, though neither side is likely to agree to this.

Vellum tells the story of three conscientious objectors from this war in heaven: Thomas and Phreedom Messenger, whose story is told in book one and Seamus Finnan, to which book two is dedicated. Inbetween, in the errata the story of Reynald Carter is told. The three storylines intersect in odd, ritualised moments while the stories of the Messengers and Finnan is also linked to two specific myths. For the Messengers it's the Sumerian tale of the descent of Inanna into the underworld while poor old Finnan is an avatar of a much more well known myth. In some ways almost every chapter starts a new story, but each also advances the metastory.

It's all confusing, messy and infuriating at times, sometimes sophomoric in its cleverness, but if you trust the author and let yourself be dragged along by the force of the narrative, it works. However, if you get irritated quickly by awkward storytelling, this may not be the book for you. I liked it, though it is slightly less clever and important as it thinks itself to be.

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Webpage created 09-03-2008, last updated 23-03-2008.