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  1. #1
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    September 2011 Book of the Month: Vellum by Hal Duncan

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



    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
    Mark

  2. #2
    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. #3
    Registered User Roland 85's Avatar
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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. #4
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roland 85 View Post
    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.
    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. #5
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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:
    Quote Originally Posted by Eventine View Post
    I finished up Vellum on the weekend. Very interesting book. At times, very challenging. Some bits of the book I enjoyed greatly, other parts really struggled to keep my interest. The book partly reminded me of Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, with the various aspects of the characters existing in different points in time (and, in this case, various realities).

    Did anyone else notice some subtle changes in the font? I wasn't sure if I was going insane, or if he was so good at switching the viewpoints that the words even looked different.

    At any rate, I can see why this book is getting talked about. I'm not sure if it's justified to be raved about, but definitely deserves to be talked about.
    Quote Originally Posted by Eventine View Post
    I'm now trading off sleep time for Ink time. Once you get into the rhythm of his writing Hal Duncan does some pretty amazing stuff.
    He's very ambitious - not many novels attempt to roll together myth, non-linear style, action and contemplation of reality like this, let alone pull it off.
    Quote Originally Posted by Eventine View Post
    I lost a few extra hours sleep recently finishing up Ink by Hal Duncan. I'm not sure if this is the best way to say it, but Hal Duncan is disgustingly talented. What he does with the structure of his novels, with the characters, with the ideas and with the sheer scope of this book is amazing. The term "epic" appears misused on other novels when compared with this - this second half of the duology dealing not only with the fate of the world, not only the fate of all reality, not only the fate of all conceptual realities, but of all realities that have ever been and will ever be conceived.
    It has angels at war. It has references to Euripides. It has nano-technology. It has takes on many myths, from Adam and Eve through the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah. It has exploding zeppelins and ornithopters in cracking action scenes. Despite all this, it doesn't feel cluttered with the various threads layering onto each other in a style that some may find challenging, but is ultimately rewarding once you get the feel for his writing.
    The book showcases seven character "threads", various incarnations of characters/archetypes across various realities. The story progresses by jumping through these incarnations across realities, which themselves are often fluid. This structure can make for a challenging read, and this will ultimately be what I think will dissuade many of the more mainstream genre fans from a story that would otherwise attract readers in droves. What by some will be deemed as ambitious and literary will be deemed by others to be deliberately over-written and over-intellectualised. However, this structure does allow Duncan to showcase his themes of destiny and inevitability, myth and archetype very effectively.
    Of the complaints I do have around the book, the first is the focus on some of the character threads over others. Jack is obviously Duncan's favourite, and he mostly gets the lion's share of attention, which can at time take away from the other characters. This also resulted in what I felt was an ineffective epilogue focussed around Jack and Puck, which by that stage of the book (or perhaps my tiredness?) felt more like Duncan struggling to say good-bye to his favourites rather than tie up the novel.

    This, after a few let downs, is my best release of 2007 so far and should easily make my top 5 for the year. I urge everyone out there to attempt Vellum (and yes, I know it can actually be hard work at times, but the pay off is there) and if you enjoy pick up Ink, which is a great conclusion to the duology.

  6. #6
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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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. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by KatG View Post
    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.
    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. #8
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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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. #9
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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. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Hobbit View Post
    I think this is going to be a love it or hate it book.
    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. #11
    Registered User Roland 85's Avatar
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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. #12
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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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.

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