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Ink: The Book of All Hours 2

by Hal Duncan

(Macmillan, £17.99, 614 pages, hardback, published 2 February 2007.)

Review by Jakob Schmidt

cover scanAfter the release of the bitmites -- hybrids born from a union between nanotechnology and the engraved souls of the dead -- everything has changed. Trying to create the worlds of human imagination, the bitmites have torn reality apart and cast the shade of Hinter over the Vellum. Small enclaves of civilisation, ruled by scattered Unkin, remain, stuck in an eternal present. In these barren lands, Reynard's little troupe of actors stages a mystery play for a duke of hell. Soon, this drama of sex, revenge and revolution becomes fatally interactive...

In a different fold, 1949, the futurist movement has given the rivalling fascists a run for their money, and the former turn out to be far from the lesser evil. Jonathan, who calls himself Jack now (and for good reasons), enlists his brother, master thief Reinhardt von Strann, to steal the Eye of the Weeping Angel, a magical artefact that is supposed to help him rewrite the course of history.

Meanwhile, an eternity later, a small squad of inter-dimensional adventurers, whom we got to know, in other lives, as the Troupe D'Reynard, prepare for their ultimate mission: to secure the final draft of The Book of All Hours and keep the rogue angels from creating their god of wrath from its pages. The final battle takes place in 1929, in a city that was once known as Sodom, and which is about the be destroyed yet again. But this time, Mad Jack Carter is determined that even if he can't save the people of Sodom, he will find the one reality, the one possibility where one man is allowed to live: Tammuz, Thomas Messenger, the eternal victim of the ever-raging war...

It makes little sense to read Ink without having read its predecessor, Vellum so in this review, I'll assume that you are familiar with the first half of The Book of All Hours. Like Vellum, Ink consists of two clearly separated parts, this time modelled on the concepts of "Winter" and "Spring". Ink shares all the defining features of the first instalment: The abundance of mythical and pop-cultural allusions, the parallel histories, the witty, sex-and-explosions-powered Jack Flash pulp action, the constant, tumbling ride through multiple worlds, most of them only glimpsed at and yet so rich that it feels that, beyond the pages of the book, they're fully realised. All of these features are dependant upon Duncan's amazingly powerful and versatile use of language. If Duncan didn't employ such a range of immediately recognisable voices, Ink would simply fall apart, shattered by its fragmentary style and its sheer abundance of -- well, pretty much everything. The only thing I missed in Ink was the Anna/Inanna/Phreedom-character, who was an integral part of the first book, but is all but absent from most of Ink. The epilogue provides some compensation for this, but it doesn't really make up for the previous neglect of the only female character of The Book of All Hours.

Despite its exuberance, Ink goes a little bit easier on the whole kaleidoscopic-reality thing than Vellum did. The prologue provides an account of "the story so far", which explains some of the more enigmatic elements of the first volume; and even though there are probably as many strands of narrative in this book as there are in Vellum, this time they feel more closely interconnected. In general, the narrative is much more linear. If Vellum spread out the puzzle pieces, Ink does a pretty good job at fitting them together. However, this would probably not be a Hal Duncan novel if the result was only one picture ... Ink explores a number of concepts regarding the relationship of history and the individual with its capacity for change, joy and suffering. Duncan renders such abstract notions tangible by his highly intuitive imagery: When, for example, in an attempt to "make history right", a big blot of ink is spilled on a whole page of The Book of All Hours, turning the whole twentieth century into a jumbled mess, there could be no image better fitting for the century of the screwed-up great narratives of modernity. Despite some antique and pseudo-medieval overtones, it is clearly the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century with its two world wars and the holocaust, that Ink, even more than Vellum, tries to come to terms with.

But The Book of All Hours is not a thinly veiled philosophical treatise: On the contrary, in its course, Ink compresses the whole mythology of The Book of All Hours more and more to the personal level, until, in the epilogue, we come to realise that all the struggling against an insufferable history of violence boils down to the confrontation of a single human being with an arbitrary death. Consequently, in the end, "making it right" is less about fighting empires and angels and rewriting history, but about saving Thomas Messenger. Without giving away too much, it can be said that one of the last subchapter-titles within the book frames this quest with bittersweet irony ... and bittersweet, as is suggested at one point in Ink, is probably a more fitting description for the dialectical metaphysics of knowledge than good and evil. In the end, The Book of All Hours is a furious lament, a work of love and anger. It's very much about reality; not (or not only) in a metaphorical sense, but in its address of very real human experiences. Within the last pages of Ink, the novel fittingly reminds us that there's something out there that is dwarfing the richness, the reality, the terror and the complexity of this amazing piece of work: the world.

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