Vellum: The Book of All Hours: 1
by Hal Duncan
Review by John Berlyne
Macmillan Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1405052082
Date: 05 August, 2005 List Price £17.9 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Macmillan is hailing the arrival of Hal Duncan on the scene with the publishing equivalent of a ticker-tape parade. There was a buzz about this novel in genre circles long before it reached any bookstores, and beautifully produced proofs have allowed the press to taste this extraordinary delicacy well in advance of publication. In turn these proofs have been changing hands on eBay for impressive amounts, which has only served to enhance all the pre-publicity. With the release timed perfectly for launch at this year's Worldcon (which just happens to be in the author's home city), Macmillan has pulled out all the stops, giving Duncan's debut a hefty hard cover (rare nowadays for a first book) ? and indeed there is great significance in it being a Macmillan title, rather than being released through their Tor UK imprint, for though Vellum has distinctly identifiable genre traits, it is steadfastly a work of literature and it's author very much a man of letters.
To distil Vellum down to a synopsis is not easy, for it is an intensely difficult work to summarise. At its centre lies the basic premise of a war between factions of angels, something that has been touched upon by other authors, most notably Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy, but Vellum is an epic with a truly epic feel, far denser and far more unconventional in its execution, and at the risk of appearing to be a lazy reviewer, I can offer no better synopsis than that quoted in the press release?
"It's 2017 and the End Days are coming. Beings that were once human are gathering to fight in one last great war for the control of the Vellum -- the vast realm of eternity on which our world is just a scratch. But to a draft-dodging Irish angel and a trailer-trash tomboy called Phreedom, it's about to become brutally clear that there's no great divine or diabolic plan at play here, just a vicious battle between the hawks of Heaven and hell, with humanity stuck somewhere in the middle."
Though this offers some hints as to what is going on in Vellum, it does not convey what an extraordinary experience it is for the reader. Stylistically, it is unlike anything I've encountered before. Duncan offers us a rich and lyrical narrative, filled with imagery as strange and beautiful as it is harsh. Vellum reads as a kind of mosaic novel, its structure ignoring the normal conventions of plot driven narratives. Characters are multi-faceted, buried in layer upon layer of myth, their identifying features often blurred by Duncan's stream-of-consciousness, conversational approach. Timelines and locations are split and fractally dispersed throughout, often making it tricky for the reader to follow exactly what is going on, the effect kind of "split screen". And within this book of mirrors, Duncan offers us a fusion of genres which leads to something quite new.
Not all readers will be comfortable tackling Vellum, for it is not an easily consumed work. It jinks in all directions and if you should happen to put it down for any length of time, you'll be struggling to find a way back in -- a risky ploy by Duncan, for Vellum is in no way a one-sitting novel. Rather this is impressionist writing, without straight lines or clear, close-up definition, but as with all great works and all great artists, it is the whole picture that impresses rather than the individual brush strokes. With Vellum, Hal Duncan shows he is clearly a formidable writer -- his prose is stunning, his feel for language is instinctive and spectacular and he tackles his massive, sprawling story with a hunger and drive that cannot fail to impress.
A second novel in The Book of All Hours entitled Ink is in preparation. In the meantime, Vellum is set to make lasting impression, and one that might well be felt out there in the mainstream.