Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Vellum by Hal Duncan

Every so often a book comes along that goes beyond entertainment, beyond literary value, and becomes a work inspiring awe. Everything about Vellum does this – the prose foremost, but the construction of the narrative, the amount of research that had to be done, the extraordinary characters and so much more are just as awe inspiring. With a mix of science fiction and fantasy that grows into a kind of magical realism, Vellum transcends typical genre classification. It’s simply amazing that such a complete novel is Duncan’s first.

To describe what this novel is about is not a trivial matter to do in the length of my typical review. This is a story of war, or more correctly the story of a few individuals who are involved, whether they like it or not, in not just any war, but the war we would call the Apocalypse. These individuals are more than human – they are unkin, the angels, demons, and gods of myth, legend, and religion.

The story progresses in a very non-linear fashion, jumping from character to character, through time and worlds, all told in first person narrative with Duncan’s dark, witty, profane, and simply beautiful prose. The construction of this novel could be a barrier, the number of character point of views, use of nicknames, and changing of names through time and space could (and does) become confusing; but the shear talent apparent in the prose makes Vellum a joy to read in a way I’ve never before experienced in a book. I’ll repeat – it’s awe inspiring, transcending, and at times it could blow the mind of Hunter S. Thompson.

Some characters succeed more than others, some hit at a primal level, a punch strait to the gut, an arrow through the heart. Jack Flash is fiery, feisty, engaging, and terrifyingly psychotic, but in a good way. Thomas Messenger, destined to suffer in each and every life, never gives up. The eternal Seamus Finnan runs from war and destiny, from guilt, and always trying to never awake. Phreedom-Anna, as young as she is ancient, vengeful and impetuous, what will she do next?

At times Duncan uses Vellum as a soap box, ranting against war, discrimination, and hate. At times Duncan uses Vellum to extract a karmic revenge against what ills society. At times it’s merely an outlet – of what I can’t precisely say. It never becomes preachy and is always wrapped in his extraordinary prose – Fookin’-A is what I have to say!

Vellum is not for everyone – the buzz around the internet indicates it’s a book that you love or hate, with very little middle ground. My recommendation: read it, tell your friends to read it, tell your relatives. If my enthusiasm is not yet clear, on my 10-point rating scale, Vellum is a 9.5 – folks I don’t rate books higher than that.

Vellum is not whole in and of itself – it is part of a duology. The sequel, Ink, is out in February, 2007, and I can’t wait.


TK42ONE said...

Good review, but I doubt I'll read it. I know it's gotten a lot of praise, but your review gives me the impression that I'll likely not enjoy it. Not that your review is bad, I just don't think this will fall into my preferred genre of "easy" fantasy.

Non-linear storytelling is a bit beyond me at times and tends to take away from the story at times. While I have endured it many times in many varying degrees, I prefer a straight-forward story.

And blowing the mind of Hunter S. Thompson? That's was the nail in the coffin.

But thanks for the review!

Neth said...

No worries - Vellum is definately not what I would call "easy" fantasy - as I said it's not a book for everyone.

I think a review is just as successful if it can stear someone away from a book they won't enjoy as it is when it helps someone find a book they love.

Ian Sales said...

Vellum is the bastard love-child of James Joyce and Clive Barker. But if you like either, you'll still enjoy it.

The Enigma said...

At first I really didn't know what to make of Vellum, a very difficult read in places, a mesmeric joy in others, though overall i'd say it was a very pleasurable experience.

Very good synopsis by the way, I could never even think about writing a review of it, I wouldn't have a bloody clue where to start.

Neth said...

Yeah - Vellum was a tough book to review. My 'solution' was to essentially skip over the 'plot' part of the review I typically do and concentrate on more the construction of the novel and emotional punch.

Arne said...

I tried. I really did. And I hated it.

The best analogy I have is: imagine those movies where they do montages, where each scene lasts 3-5 seconds, and people talk, ask deep questions (/man and woman in silhouette / "what are we doing here?" / cut, new angle / "where's here?" / cut, she's now across the room / "what does 'we' mean?") and occasionally something happens.

Usually, in a movie, this might last up to a minute. Maybe two. And it's usually very cinematic, ethereal, and artsy. They're used for flashbacks, or to portray confusion on the part of the characters, or a drug-induced haze.

No imagine a movie that's 5 hours long, and nothing but cut scene montages. And write it down, instead of put it on a screen.

I found it tiresome and extremely hard to become invested in the characters. I loved the first 25 pages. After 50 pages, I was more annoyed than interested. After 150 pages, I was more angry than annoyed. In the end, I finished the book because, dang it, I'd invested so much time, I HAD to finish it to see how it turns out. And to me, that was a mistake, because I felt the ending was a total let-down.


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