Vellum by Hal Duncan


Published by Del Rey
May 2006
ISBN 0-345-48731-1
480 Pages

Vellum has already garnered stellar reviews from the British publication, so I have to admit to high expectations on this book. Hal Duncan is a very vocal blogger who always has a lot of interesting things to say. Here in Vellum, that same intelligence, imagination, and pure brashness shine through on nearly every page. This is not an “easy” book by any means, Duncan goes to great lengths to challenge the reader, both on a structural level and a sense-of-wonder level. By “easy” I don’t mean bad in anyway, good SF Literature should challenge readers.

To put it simply, Hal Duncan goes about re-imagining the conflict between Heaven and Hell, and in the process, he rewrites the conception of reality. Reality, or the multiverse of the Vellum, can be read in an archaic, little-know book called the Book of All Hours, which is something of a virtual experience to the reader of said book. Hal Duncan does a lot of interesting things through the course of the story, not the least of which is pack a great deal of resonance in each word, comprising each chapter of the book. One would be well-served to be near a computer while reading this deep novel, Wikipedia or Encyclopedia Mythica do wonders for adding further depth for the reader, to Duncan’s already rich story.

There are a lot of tricks Duncan employs throughout the novel, a shifting perspective, several shifts in narrative style, and even several fonts to differentiate the place and character for each portion of the story. However, the last of those may be more attributed to the publisher, Del Rey, who by all accounts is positioning this book to do special things with the SF reading populace. The Advance Reading copy is itself, of a higher quality than some of the final copies of books I have read and owned.

When I intimate the challenges of this book, by no means is this a slight. There aren’t enough books that manage to present such an enjoyable puzzle in narrative form. The narrative form Duncan employs, is itself, something of a puzzle. Some may be put off by the numerous shifts in presentation, scenery, and “worlds of Vellum,” but on the whole, this is part of what I enjoyed. While it was an intriguing puzzle to read, one can either consider Duncan brave, audacious and brash, or simply crazy for attempting to throw all these perspectives into the mix. I suspect there is an equal mix of these things at play, but these shifts served to illustrate how epic a story is being told. I also thought his placing of various technological advancements in the hands of his Angels, or rather Unkin, was clever. Technology doesn’t always blend well with the fantastic, but Duncan made the two a seamless and logical integration.

The resonance hits on many levels, from the characters themselves to the idea of parallel realities. Echoes of earlier fantastic fiction can be felt throughout, from Michael Moocock’s vast Eternal Champion mythos to the cynical Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon comic book series Preacher to much of Neil Gaiman’s fiction to the Bible itself, readers approaching Duncan’s novel will notice many ‘Easter Eggs’ throughout the whole novel. Again, having Wikipedia, Encyclopedia Mythica, or either of John Clute’s Encyclopedias handy can only help to appreciate the story even more. That’s not to say these handy “tools” are necessary, not by any means.

The only flaw could be Duncan’s loss of control, and at that, it is minor. A few instance towards the middle third of the novel, I felt as if the narrative lost its focus. At times it isn’t easy to figure out who was in control, Duncan or the story itself.

Back to the positives, the early passages of Reynard’s discovery of the book seemed very genuine and worked effectively to place a “real” character amidst all of the fantastic and shifting realities throughout the novel. Here, Duncan evoked a similar feel as Mary Gentle did in her massive epic, Ash: A Secret History.

To sum up this book is really quite difficult, and trying to place one’s reaction is perhaps as challenging. I can say I very much enjoyed the novel, and I particularly enjoyed the “puzzle” aspect of the story. As has been the case with a spate of recent books, this is a novel that begs further inspection and additional reading. In the coming year, I hope to approach the novel again in preparation for the concluding volume, Ink. While favorable comparison have been made to other works and writers in the genre earlier in this review, Duncan manages to take the hints of those pieces and storytellers to craft a truly original work, wholly his own. While the War in Heaven is perhaps the oldest conflict of recorded human story, Duncan presents something here, which is deeper and more resonant than much of what has come before.

Be wowed, be awed, be puzzled and be intrigued, touch the Vellum, read the Vellum and absorb the Vellum – it will only move you to return to it, it will challenge your preconceived notions. Essentilly, it does what SF should do to the reader, provoke the reader’s thoughts and question the reality that surrounds them. Hal Duncan has succeeded this basic premise tenfold.

© 2006 Rob H. Bedford

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