September 2011 Book of the Month: Vellum by Hal Duncan

Discussion in 'Fantasy / Horror' started by Hobbit, Sep 1, 2011.

  1. Hobbit

    Hobbit Administrator Staff Member

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    Our September Book of the Month is the perplexing Vellum by Hal Duncan.

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    It was his first novel, released by Pan Macmillan in August 2005.


    It was nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award, and won the Spectrum and the Tähtivaeltaja Awards.

    It is about a war between Heaven and Hell fought in a reality of which Earth is only a fragment; in this reality, called Vellum, live the Unkin (Angels and Demons). The events in the novel are described in a non-linear order, with several skips ahead and back in time. The story of the characters is linked to the Sumerian myth of Inanna and her descent to the underworld and to Aeschylus's tragedy Prometheus Bound.

    It is divided in two parts dedicated to the seasons of summer (entitled ""The Lost Deus of Sumer") and fall (entitled "Evenfall Leaves").

    I think this is going to be a love it or hate it book.

    Do you agree?

    Discuss!

    Mark
     
  2. Lord Nerevar

    Lord Nerevar Registered User

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    This is one of my most favourite books. Hal fills his world with incredible writing, interesting concepts and weird/fun characters. He plays, twists, tweaks and tears at history and mythology. It is an amazing adventure to play join the dots throughout the book. By the end of the duology, if you are an observant reader, you should understand most of what happened, but probably not all. Vellum is the most ambitious book I have ever read.
     
  3. Roland 85

    Roland 85 Registered User

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    I have to agree - it is the most ambitious book I have read too. It is a tough read, but ultimately very rewarding.

    I love the concept of a cubic story where each separate fragment is part of its own reality, and characters appear again and again in different forms, always following the archetype they represent, with the little fragments creating the feeling of a story. It is awesome once you grasp it.

    And then there is the writing itself, which is full of little gems.

    Plus, Jack has to be the most badass gay character in fantasy, haha


    I am not sure it's the best of ideas to separate Vellum from Ink though. They are after all one book split in two.
     
  4. Erfael

    Erfael Lemurs!!! Staff Member

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    I know, and I think it's fair if people want to discuss both. It's just been policy here in the book club that we do one "book" cover to cover (If there had been a Book of All Hours omnibus, we'd have done that....)
     
  5. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    Great books. I read them both as they were published, and recall finding them challenging but very rewarding. 5 years on I can still remember aspects of the style and characters (perhaps because they were archetypes?) rather clearly, but am a bit sketchier on the plot, which I hope says more about how the books are put together than my memory.
    I haven't had time to do a re-read, but these books would definitely lend themselves to one - I think you could find something different every time you approached them.

    From my comments way back when:
     
  6. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    For me, they weren't difficult books to follow. They were using some of the sort of techniques in fantasy I've read over the years. The writing very much reminded me of Tim Powers, Jim Crowley and others I've read in approach though of course Duncan has his own voice. The hard part for people is that the main group of characters aren't just one group of characters but are instead made up of multiple characters who are quite different from each other beyond a basic essence. So that split personality aspect, the jumping not simply from world to world like a multiverse novel but essentially jumping from one story to another, many of them novels in their own right and some of which never come to a conclusion, one character version to another, or one version jumping from one reality to another, with the main arc story worming through them through small connections, parallels and brain overlaps of characters conscious of being versions and not -- that is asking the reader to pay a lot of attention.

    But once you see it through that system, then each section becomes what story am I in, which character(s) is it, what version of the character are they now -- it gets fairly easy to orient and Duncan does try to make it as easy as possible through repeating imagery and dialogue. They are the puzzle pieces and the two books are about the different attempts to put the pieces into a whole puzzle (all of existence,) and what form the various characters are trying to make that puzzle be. Heaven and Hell aren't real -- they're concepts, as is Summerian myth. And all of it is in service to a discussion of freedom with great action and spy sequences.

    So it has become a favorite of mine since I am a story addict and Duncan is giving me an endless array of stories in one. (Though the passion play could have been a bit shorter in Ink perhaps.)
     
  7. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    Totally agree with that - once you get into the rhythm of the books it is a lot easier. I did struggle to start with Vellum.
    Tim Powers though? I would have to say that stylistically I see them as very different, so would be interested to see which aspects you find similar.
     
  8. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    Characters, how he sets up certain scenes like the angel interrogation segment, the use of small objects and details that are tied into the plot, a certain amount of earnestness. :)
     
  9. Eventine

    Eventine Uh, Staff Member

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    OK, I can see that (except the characters bit). When you said "the writing" I was thinking more in terms of style or structure, and couldn't see a lot in common between Powers and Duncan in those two areas.
     
  10. Sfinx

    Sfinx Life's a riddle

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    I very much enjoyed Vellum, but did have a hard time 'getting into it'. It's not so much the jumping around in space, time and characters as the actual plot I struggled to discover. But I guess in a way, this struggle to find a plot, or meaning, is at the center of the book itself. There are no definites, no straight lines, no 'ultimate truths'. It's basically a fookin' mess, as Seamus would probably put it. But a mess with recurring patterns, archetypes, tensions and stories. Which makes it very fascinating again.

    Duncan's deftness at playing around with styles, genres, mythology, numerology and symbology also makes for an interesting and intellectually challenging read - while at the same the raw emotions, struggles and harsh descriptions of war's terrors also strike an emotional chord.

    I am less enthousiastic about the sequences that focus on the retelling of Sumerian myth, eg. Inanna's descent into the underworld; it seems a fairly straightforward rendering, but it could be some of the more smart or hidden clues and references are lost on me. Thomas the eternal victim and some of Jack's incarnations are also not among my favourite characters, but Seamus, Anna and Guy more than make up for this. I guess this could also be explained psycho-analytically as a reflection of my own mental make-up...

    Cheers,

    Sfinx / shesepankh / manussiha
     
  11. Roland 85

    Roland 85 Registered User

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    I am thoroughly in love with both Jack and Puck. Puck as Matthew Shepard, and Jack as the "spirit of revel and rapture" (probably my favorite quote in the entire book - it's from Ink I think) are just too compelling.
     
  12. KatG

    KatG Effulgent Staff Member

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    The Summerian myth is very relevant to the wider picture of the two stories together. Basically, in Vellum, the multiverse of space and time and identity is taken apart and being destroyed, and the stories of the Summerian myth and its descendent Jesus are key. In Ink, it's about different views and attempts to stitch it back into a new pattern or have it dissolve completely. And the myth of Dionysus (Jesus ancestor,) and the story of the WWII Holocaust are key. And in both books, interestingly enough, there is the idea of family as a very fluid and all encompassing concept that fights repression and maintains connection.

    They are kitchen sink books, but they are trying to cover all the different aspects of identity and perception. To accomplish things, the different universes and the different stories have to be used. So each story -- which have their own plots -- are not just a part of the plot -- they're a tool to making a plot. Work through one story and set of iconic symbols and you make changes in the multiverse cumulatively. I think that this becomes a lot clearer in Ink, when they're trying to deal with the unraveled pattern than it is when you first tackle Vellum when the pattern is unraveling.