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Vellum: The Book of All Hours Part 1

by Hal Duncan

(Macmillan, £17.99, 502 pages, hardback, published 5 August 2005. ISBN: 1-4050-5208-2.)

Review by Lawrence Osborn

cover scanThis novel is a likely candidate for the 'most hyped first novel of 2005' award. Its publishers, Macmillan, have likened the significance of its publication to that of Iain Banks's The Wasp Factory, and well before its publication in August numbered bound proofs were changing hands on eBay for large sums of money. So potential readers, particularly those who find such things off-putting, will want to know whether the book lives up to the hype. The short answer is an unequivocal 'yes'. For the long answer, read on.

Vellum is the first half of an epic story cycle with the overall title of The Book of All Hours. The Vellum is also the name given to the substrate of reality in the multiverse in which the stories are set. All possibilities coexist within the Vellum. It is a complex of past, present and future; of parallel realities; of realized and unrealized possibilities; of entire worlds built upon the bones of dead stories. And that metaphysical complexity is reflected in the literary complexity of the network of stories Hal Duncan has created.

In a segment of that multiverse not unlike our own world a race of post-humans who call themselves the Unkin have developed the ability to manipulate the Vellum itself through language and symbol. Originally they used that ability to lord it over mere mortals -- they were the gods, angels and demons of our earliest mythologies. Then several thousand years ago a republican faction led by Metatron (formerly the biblical character Enoch) deposed the most powerful of the Sovereigns and dedicated themselves to bringing order to the world. But they did not win an outright victory and for millennia they have been engaged in a heavenly cold war.

As Vellum opens, that war is heating up and those Unkin who have tried to remain unaligned are being forcibly recruited by one side or the other. Vellum is primarily concerned with the experiences of three of these unaligned Unkin -- Phreedom Messenger, her brother Thomas, and their friend and mentor Seamus Finnan -- as they try to evade the recruiting sergeants of the Covenant (Metatron's faction). Thomas and Phreedom try to hide in the Vellum by obscuring their gravings -- the unique identifying mark on the soul and body of every Unkin. Thomas is hunted down and killed in one reality after another. Seamus is captured and Part 2 is constructed around his interrogation. Phreedom manages to do a deal with Metatron that leads to the death of another ancient unaligned Unkin. But that death has unexpected repercussions including accelerating the onset of Evenfall (a nanotech-driven apocalypse?) and the transformation of one of Metatron's recruiting sergeants into a character whose archetypal significance may well be developed in the sequel Ink.

I suppose their story could have been told as a linear narrative but that would have been a denial of the metaphysical premises on which the entire story cycle is based. Bravely for a first novel, Vellum abandons linearity in favour of fragmented narratives written in multiple perspectives and moving freely between different times, places and even realities. In addition, Hal Duncan moves equally freely between different genres, presenting us variously with myth, high fantasy, realism, cyberpunk, a sui generis 'psycho-steampunk' and even stream of consciousness. And he does all this in such a way that he imbues his characters with a vertigo-inducing depth. Thus Thomas is Tammuz is Dumuzi is the dying god, the archetypal victim; and all the stories of his death speak of one and the same event. Similarly by the end of Part 2 it is beginning to appear that Seamus is Lucifer is Prometheus, punished by the gods for bringing enlightenment to mortals.

Inevitably first impressions are that the author has thrown his readers into a literary chaos. But, as is often the case with a good novel, first impressions are misleading. Vellum is kaleidoscopic rather than chaotic. Each individual element is a carefully crafted literary gem. And the story cycle as a whole displays all the hallmarks of being a carefully crafted structure. The two volumes that will make up The Book of All Hours (Vellum and Ink) each consist of two books. Those four parts reflect respectively afternoon/summer, evening/autumn, night/winter and morning/spring. In Vellum each book consists of seven chapters (the seven days of the week?). This is more than a literary conceit: according to Carl Jung the numbers are archetypal symbols of wholeness. Given the archetypal nature of the central characters, these patterns are more than merely aesthetic. On the contrary, there is a clear allusion to Jung in these numbers, which are symbolic of wholeness.

By contrast with the complexity of the stories told in Vellum, the language used is deceptively simple. There are none of the baroque complexities of vocabulary that you find in a China Miéville novel, for example. However, it soon becomes clear as you read Vellum that the simplicity is deceptive. Hal Duncan is clearly an author who cares about the words as much as about the story, and one is left with a sense that every word has been carefully selected and fitted into place in the grand edifice. Again, I suspect this reflects an aspect of the universe he is trying to create -- a universe in which there exists a language so straightforward, so direct and so immediate that it can alter reality itself.

Hal's love of words is also apparent in the playfulness with which he uses them. The book is well stocked with wordplay -- some of it is obvious, like the character Don Coyote who appears in Part 2; but I suspect I have missed a good deal of more subtle wordplay, which will reveal itself gradually as I re-read the book. And his playfulness extends to paying homage to authors (and others) who may or may not have influenced his development as a novelist. Lovecraft is given a German makeover. Mervyn Peake has a walk-on part as an inmate in a lunatic asylum. One suspects that the Professor Hobsbaum who appears from time to time may be a reference to a former professor of English at Glasgow University. And, of course, there is Jack Carter.

Unfortunately the fact that Vellum is only the first half of a single work is all too obvious by the end of the volume. There are all sorts of loose ends floating around -- Phreedom is pregnant; Seamus is free; Jack Carter has been catapulted from mere spear-bearer to figure of archetypal significance; Metatron's nanotechnology is out of control. But readers will have to wait until next August to find out how he intends to tie the loose ends together into the whole promised by the structure of the two novels. On the other hand, that time might be well spent re-reading Vellum several times to get a clearer grasp of what is going on. And unlike so much that passes for speculative fiction, this is a work that I think will bear frequent re-reading.

I said at the beginning of the review that this book lives up to the hype that has surrounded it. But that's an understatement. This is quite simply the most original piece of speculative fiction I have read for years. Even better, the originality is matched by a sheer quality of writing that is rarely found in genre fiction. Get a copy now. Vellum deserves to become a classic.

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