by Hal Duncan

Cover image

Series: Book of All Hours #2
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: 2007
ISBN: 0-345-48733-9
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 530

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This, finally, is the conclusion of the Book of All Hours, the sequel to Duncan's marvelous Vellum. Even more so than Vellum, it's complicated, difficult, non-linear reading, and is also the second half of a complete story. (The first section is called Part Three.) It's probably incomprehensible without reading Vellum first.

We left our heroes in a scattered mess of echoing archetypes after a nanite plague has rewritten reality and history. (One may or may not realize, after Vellum, that we were left there, but it slowly becomes apparent over the course of Ink.) Just as Vellum started reasonably coherent and then exploded and shattered as the story continued, Ink begins almost entirely incoherently, flittering between multiple similar characters and endless settings, before slowly cohering into something approaching a conventional plot for the last hundred pages or so.

This reversal of direction from Vellum makes sense given the structure of the overall work, but it makes for rough going for the reader. Vellum hooks you before it starts throwing out the really hard stuff; Ink starts out in the deep end, with a barrage of metaphor, non-linear plotting, and resonating images, and makes you tread water for some time before throwing you a line. It opens with characters and ideas scattered across multiple parallel worlds, multiple Havens of coherent rules in the wilderness of the Hinter, following multiple instances of Jack, Joey, and Puck. Sometimes those instances thread together into a story, but even then there are embedded flashbacks and layers of deception. Often they're mind-bogglingly confusing. Suffice it to say that this is not fast reading, and even taking one's time over each page and puzzling clues from the alignment of headings, it's easy to get a headache.

As with Vellum, familiarity with classical material helps. Ink is full of literary allusion, not to mention a re-enactment of Euripedes' The Bacchae by the ensemble cast during the first half of the book. (I also found the epilogue mostly incoherent, since it's a reworking of material from Virgil with which I'm not familiar.) But beyond that, I got the most from the opening of Ink when I stopped looking for plot, stopped trying to line everything up and piece it back together, and instead tried to read for emotional effect. The first part of Ink is as much a character study of Jack and Joey as anything else. One may not come away with any clear idea of what's going on, but Jack's nature as the wild force of power, the rebel, the terrorist, the Nazi, the one-man force of chaos with a bipolar side of dark order does come across.

By the second part of the book, the angels are back into the story, one slowly pieces together a picture of the world as a result of the fallout from the bitmites of Vellum, and the cast of seven characters is in place. The conclusion returns to mythological warfare, the Book of All Hours, open combat using Cant to attack and rewrite the universe, and slowly some sense of goal. While Vellum was concerned with scope, breadth, vision, and stage, Ink is about rules. Making rules, breaking rules, forcing people and places to adhere to them, rewriting them, and recording them. Changing history and failing to change history. Ink is about what's written on the pages, how the writing happens, and who controls it. The book metaphor, between Vellum and Ink, is wonderfully vivid.

Unfortunately, digging the themes out of the text is even harder than it was with Vellum, hard enough to be discouraging for me. I caught the edges of grand ideas: the obvious struggle between chaos and order, of course, but also how seven different shards of archetypes combine into one force, the futility and necessity of rebellion, and some wonderfully nasty shots at the idea of God and the stifling catastrophe of a coherent scripture and a God who exists. The end of the book features a subversive retelling and questioning of key bits of the Old Testament that I liked quite a bit. But for all that I dug out of Ink, I felt like I was leaving even more behind, that whole sections of the book went straight over my head, and that it was often unnecessarily complex. Duncan gives the reader almost no help; he dumps all the scattered shards of story on a table in front of you and leaves it to you to puzzle out how they might go together and what they might mean. That gives the reader maximum freedom, but this is a 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle of a picture of chaos, and you don't have a box lid to work from.

I left Ink rather unsatisfied. I think there was some closure to Reynard's grand trip through the Vellum that started Vellum, but I mostly missed it. The story of the angels is the central plot of the series and is resolved, the strongest part of closure in the book, but Finnan's story gets only an oblique conclusion, as does Phreedom's. Part of the trouble for me is that Ink focuses heavily on Jack, Puck, and Joey, and while I like Joey well enough, Jack and Puck I find annoying and incoherent more often than interesting. Jack wasn't really the character I wanted to read about, so large sections of Ink were a disappointment. I would have preferred to spend more time with Phreedom, but she goes deep into archetype territory, playing out practically every female role you can think of except for the ones Puck plays.

As with Vellum, I think one's enjoyment of Ink will succeed or fail based on one's opinion of Duncan's language. He uses metaphor, alliteration, long runs of description, vivid images, eroticism (usually male homosexual), and outright pornography to create something that's often more poetry than prose. For example, when the characters are playing out their version of The Bacchae, the rhyme scheme becomes contagious: not only does the dialogue rhyme, but it starts infecting the surrounding narration. Duncan goes gloriously all-out, leaving nothing in reserve, and the result is either beautiful or horribly overdone depending on how it strikes you from moment to moment. This is the sort of work that you have to occasionally read for sound and image rather than meaning, and if that's not your thing, I expect it will be more frustration than it's worth.

Even more than Vellum, this isn't a book for everyone. It's unforgivingly difficult, in a wild, non-linear, non-traditional way. Sometimes, I think this works at a level that you couldn't reach with a more traditional book, but it demands a lot of patience of the reader and is the sort of work one ideally needs to read multiple times in quick succession to wrap one's mind around. It's a hard book to read except when one can really concentrate. I have enough other things to read that I don't want to take the time, which means I leave a lot of meaning behind untapped. It is, unfortunately, nowhere near the book that Vellum was (at least in my opinion), but if you loved Vellum as I did, it does offer a bit more of the same. Only consider Ink if you read and loved (not just liked) Vellum, but if you did, cautiously recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-11-05

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