Review: Vellum, by Hal Duncan

Publisher: Macmillan
Copyright: 2005
ISBN: 1-4050-5334-8
Pages: 502

For once, the back cover blurb not only caught my attention but does a decent job at telling the reader about the book.

In the Vellum -- the vast realm of eternity on which our world is just a scratch -- the unkin are gathering for war.

In the Vellum, a falling angel and a renegade devil are about to come to blows.

In the Vellum, blood magic made in hell is about to come face to face with nanotechnology forged in heaven. Past, present and future will collide with other worlds and ancient myths.

And the Vellum will burn.

This is not a book that I would have found on my own. I got it via Emerald City and had no idea what to expect. After that back cover blurb and the gorgeous printing job Macmillan did, I was already excited. After the prelude, I was enthralled.

I think angels and Christian mythology, particularly subversive takes on them, are sadly underused in fiction, so I get excited whenever I see a book willing to tackle that mythology head on. Until this book, the best I'd found was the In Nomine role-playing game, and looking to role-playing games for one's storytelling fix is inevitably disappointing. The mechanics show through too much. Philip Pullman verged on this sort of book in His Dark Materials and then immediately swerved away again, writing something very different. Ducan doesn't swerve. Vellum goes crashing straight into the mythology of angels, demons, spiritual war, choosing sides, and glorious subversive moral ambiguity without even slowing down. This is the book that I was hoping Pullman was going to write, only written for adults and considerably better.

Duncan doesn't stop there, either. There's Sumerian mythology, Greek mythology, shamanism, body art, Matthew Shephard, VR avatars, World War I, secret explorations in the Caucasus, the Spanish Civil War, Irish independence movements, and a stunner of a world exploration subplot that leaves the mind reeling. And oh yes, Duncan throws in not only nanotech but grey goo, ties this in to Sumerian and Greek mythology, and uses it as a character, and it works. Not only does he pull it off, he occasionally writes descriptions so powerful that I had to stop reading for a moment until the frisson of pure joy passed. It's that good.

I must warn, there's a downside: the story is also difficult and confusing. Vellum is fragmented and extremely non-linear, written primarily about characters who become mythic archetypes and reverberate forward and backward through the story. The order of events and the connections between instantiations of the same character are unclear, often maddeningly so; the reader who doesn't spend most of this book hopelessly confused is far better at this than I. It's not purely a mismash: one can untangle most of Phreedom's story by the end, for instance, and Reynard's journey through the Vellum is told in refreshing intervals of linearity even if it's baffling how it connects to the rest of the story. When Seamus takes the forefront towards the end of the book, everything becomes much less confusing when one realizes that we're going to get his background and history told in flashbacks interwoven with flashbacks of the history of one of the many Jacks. But this is real work to figure out. Vellum does not try to be easy for the reader.

It also helps to be familiar with mythology. There are three major mythological retellings here: the Sumerian story of Inanna's journey into the underworld and the related story of her brother/lover/son Tammuz, the story of Prometheus from Greek mythology, and Virgil's "The Golden Age Returns" and "The Song of Silenus." I knew Prometheus fairly well, and having just read Snow Crash, I had the benefit of Stephenson's crash course in Sumerian mythology. The Virgil was entirely unfamiliar, and as a result I found that the most confusing section of the book. I highly recommend brushing up on the above bits of mythology before or while you're reading, at least to the degree of spending some time in Wikipedia.

This all sounds very intimidating, and perhaps it should. Vellum requires work to piece together.

My grandfather didn't write his journal in a book but on loose leaves of paper. There are pages torn from hotels' headed notepads, foolscap, A4, Letter, tiny fragments on lined pages ripped from little notebooks.

Relics, he writes on the page I place beside the interview like the next piece of the jigsaw puzzle....

When you read that, you'll know exactly how the character feels. If this is more work than you're prepared to go, or if you're not sufficiently used to mythological archetypes and SF tropes that you can handle being thrown into the deep end and expected to swim, Vellum may not be the best book to try.

But if you are, oh, it's worth it.

Duncan is often obscure and fractured, but he occasionally manages description that reads like poetry, long strings of cascading metaphor and imagry that one can savor like fine wine. It doesn't always work, but when it does, it's beautiful. I will always remember Reynard's first encounter with the Book of All Hours, even if I'm still mystified as to its role in the larger story. Or when Phreedom stops time in the exploding remains of a tattoo parlor. Or the glorious moment when Seamus's past fits together in a towering defense of rebellion, in a passionate statement of defiance against authority that had as much impact on me as anything in Milton. Or the pure idea of the Cant, a way of capturing the substrate of the universe and the power of angels in something both amenable to SF exploitation and perfectly suited for mythic themes, a concept that takes everything that clicked about the In Nomine Symphony and then transcends it.

I had to read this book like epic poetry rather than novel prose, managing perhaps 50 or 75 pages a night before my brain was simply too full to handle any more. (In fact, for reasons that I can't entirely explain, Vellum reminded me a great deal of reading T.S. Eliot -- not "Prufrock," but "The Waste Land" or, even more so, "The Hollow Men.") Having finished it, I'm sorely tempted to re-read it immediately, both to savor the language some more and in the hope that more will make sense the second time through. I never did figure out quite what was going on with the changing fonts, although they clearly follow a pattern, and I'm convinced that the alignment of the section headings was a valuable but undecyphered clue to the "level" or "perspective" from which that section was written....

This is only the first book of a series, and it leaves essentially everything unresolved. It doesn't truly end, although some of the major plot arcs reach clear points of transition. I'm desperate for Ink to be published. At the same time, I can't say I felt cheated by the ending, or felt like the book simply cut off in the middle. Vellum does give the reader something of a thematic climax and conclusion even if it's lacking the same for the plot.

I agree with the Emerald City review: Vellum is unfortunately unlikely to win any of the popular vote awards. It's just too difficult of reading, and it's an unclassifiable mix of non-traditional fantasy and smatterings of SF that doesn't fit into any standard mold. Stunningly, though, for something this audaciously ambitious (to borrow Cheryl Morgan's apt phrase), this is Duncan's first novel, and I hope it will at least score a Campbell nomination. Frustrating and difficult it may be, this is the best mythic fantasy novel that I've read this year, and one of the best I've ever read.

If you're willing to put the work into reading it, if you like mixings of mythology and science fiction, if you want to try something that's unlike anything else I've read recently in the genre, search this out. It's unforgettable.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Posted: 2005-12-13 23:13 — Why no comments?

My friend Zed just linked to Duncan's collection of definitions of SF.


Posted by rone at 2005-12-15 23:55

Yeah, that looked damned entertaining, and now that I'm on vacation, I have time to go read it. Thanks for the reminder!

Posted by eagle at 2005-12-16 22:55

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