Tor, August 2010
ISBN, 9780765325167, Hardcover
Blood Magic, Zeppelins, a newly crowned king and a Grimoire are just a sampling of the primary elements of Anthony Huso’s debut novel The Last Page. It is a novel that begins with a seemingly petty act of revenge planned by Caliph Howl, the king to be who is studying at the prestigious High College. Depending on how one views fortune, Caliph’s actions are spied upon by Sena Ilool, a witch who eventually pulls at Caliph’s heart strings as much as Caliph pulls at hers. Throughout the novel, Sena searches for a magical text – the Cisryn Ta, to understand the meaning of a certain magical phrase. Paralleling Sena’s search for the text is Caliph’s inner journey of understanding and reluctant acceptance of the crown.
Huso does have some supporting characters, but his main focuses throughout the novel are Caliph and Sena. Fortunately, his ability to keep them interesting, both in emotive expression and internal dialogue, is strong. To describe the romance between the secret witch and reluctant king as abnormal is not shy from the mark. They go for long times without seeing each other and when they do, their actions often betray their thoughts. The manner in which Huso displays their evolving relationship is often believable, given their circumstances and despite some of the ignoble acts each character performs, Huso managed to get me to ‘root’ for both of them.
The world inhabited by these characters is believable with all its sense of wonder. Stonehold, the land ruled by Caliph in many ways, fits the mold of a standard patriarchy – scheming nobles, courtly intrigue, and dark secrets – elements which unfold before Caliph’s eyes and through the people close to him. Where things admirably stray from the norm is the intermingling of steampunk elements like Zepplines, the morphing of science/mathematics and magic into singular disciplines to study and manipulate the world like holomorphy. Elements of Voodoo magic enter the equation, further differentiating Huso’s imaginative backdrop from his peers and predecessors.
The comparisons to Huso’s genre predecessors is fairly wide, but at times I was reminded of Jack Vance in terms of the inventive language, China Mieville for the mix of science and magic, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and even Sean Williams recent (and criminally under-read) Books of the Cataclysm. Some heady comparisons I realize, but those specific flavors of those four writers resonated very strongly with me as I read the novel.
Where I did have some minor problems was the plot itself. While I loved the milieu, thoroughly enjoyed the inventive language (and simultaneously felt pity for the poor copyeditor who had to keep track of the strangely spelled words) and found the characters engaging, the plotting of the novel didn’t move as smoothly as those other strong elements. This isn’t to say The Last Page is plotted badly, just that the narrative pull wasn’t as strong as I would have liked and felt the book dragged at times.
In the end though, Huso’s pure writing strength and ability to convey his imagination won out over any minor quibbles I had with the novel. The Last Page is another strong debut novel for the year, powerful in its breadth of imaginative setting, engaging in its characters, and impressive across the sum of its parts.
I should also remark on the beautiful simplicity of the book’s design. A powerful blue-eye on the cover is set against a brownish background evoking an ancient text, is further enhanced by the deckled edges of the pages. This book is the perfect design and evocation of the story inside.
This is the first of a duology (and one wonders if the book was submitted as one novel and split by the publisher) so I was left me grasping for more at the end. In that, Huso has admirably succeeded in doing a writer’s most important job – keeping the reader hungry for more. My appetite, as well as other fans of the book, will be sated when the sequel Black Bottle, publishes in the near future.
© 2010 Rob H. Bedford