Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: The Last Page by Anthony Huso

The Last Page by Anthony Huso (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is turning out to be one of the more interesting SFF debuts of 2010. While it hasn’t garnered the marketing push of some of the more memorable debuts of the past few years, The Last Page has been released to quite a bit of praise from reviewers with wide-ranging comparisons from Harry Potter to China Mièville to Brent Weeks and Daniel Abraham and such varied terms as Epic Fantasy, Steampunk, Urban Fantasy, Lovecraftian Horror, New Weird and Military Fantasy. The jacket description may hint at some of this and actually does a pretty decent job of describing the book, but it can’t capture the undeniable mood and raw talent that Huso invokes through The Last Page. I won’t claim it’s the perfect debut, but it’s one that stands out.

Set in a magically-powered industrial world of factories, military-industrial complex, zeppelins, and international commerce and rivalry The Last Page opens in sort of preparatory academy combined with university where we meet Caliph Howl, the reluctant heir to the throne of The Duchy of Stonehold. We are introduced to Caliph as an intelligent, crafty, vengeful, yet somewhat mediocre student, yet more importantly, we see him meet his mysterious lover, Sena. The remainder and larger part of the story is told primarily through these two points of view as Caliph inherits his crown, inciting a civil war and Sena seeks a book of great power as she at once rapidly ascends within and seeks her independence from the shadowy Witchocracy that she is a key member of.

Huso writes with a relatively dense prose – perhaps most analogous to China Mièville, but certainly independent enough to feel fresh. With this prose comes vivid description, and like early Mièville, the tendency to over-indulge a bit too often. Another suffering of this writing style is the occasional use of large, obscure words when simpler words that don’t require a visit to the dictionary would suffice. Though the positives outweigh the negatives by a fair margin – this style also provides a rich, layered read with visceral descriptions that perfectly set the mood.

As a result of Huso’s use of this style one cannot deny the incredible realization of the world. This isn’t traditional epic fantasy worldbuilding – the world is not fully described, only the details relevant at the moment. It paints a wonderful mood and leaves the mind craving for more. The dark, dirty setting of an industrial world powered by what can only described as magical power is adeptly shown. The inclusion of zeppelins invokes a Steampunk spirit without actually using a Steampunk setting. Politics, economics, international relations all come into play in a world that feels real rather than ideal. Huso doesn’t water-down the details – they are fully present and often confusing, but manage to further build the dark mood of the novel.

Huso creates a complex plot that never completely gels. On one hand I love the approach because it made me work for every bit of understanding and it reflects the lack of complete understanding of actual reality. On the other hand it was downright confusing at times which caused a fair amount of frustration. The biggest fault in this is a failure with his characterization – motives are either never understood or never revealed. Perhaps this reflects complexity of character that mirrors actual people, but it too often felt like Huso played his cards too close to his chest with confusion the result. This becomes a real issue with the conclusion of the novel – it isn’t developed fully, which increases the uncertainty too much and lessens the impact.

Much of The Last Page is a love story between Caliph and Sena, though I’d hardly call it a romance. It’s more of a revelation of two people attempting to discover what love is, two people who have commitments in their lives that at least seem more important than their love lives. In this Huso portrays a relationship between real people with actual lives which stands apart from much of what is seen in the fantasy genre. This love story takes place along side of the rest of the book – I suppose the question remains, was the love story the central part of the book or was just another complication in their lives? I suspect that Huso would be pleased with that sort of questioning, though the end of the book provides answer enough.

Along the way Huso seems to enjoy throwing out a few moral dilemmas of personal and political nature that are relevant to present time, though most boil down to the question of ‘is a little evil OK for the greater good’? He never gives a real answer, but asks the question in several ways to get the reader thinking. He also touches on economics and government intervention a bit, but only just. Nothing is remotely didactic, just questioning, because there aren’t tidy, sound bite answers to these sorts of questions.

One of the aspects that I enjoyed most about The Last Page is that Huso seemed to know just what I would anticipate. I suppose that it could be called subversion of genre tropes or reader expectations, but it felt much more natural. Particularly in the first half of the book, I would think something like ‘that guy will turn out to be the spymaster’ or ‘Caliph will do __’ or ‘___ will become ___’s closest ally’, etc. It seemed that each time Huso would set it up and shoot it down, subtly letting me know what I thought I’d figured out. This was a fun, pleasant surprise as I read and another example of Huso’s solid writing, particularly for a debut.

Though my thoughts on The Last Page by Anthony Huso are ultimately mixed with a healthy lean toward positive, I won’t hesitate to call it one of the most promising debuts I’ve read in the last few years. It invokes what I love best in fantasy – a wonderfully imaginative world, strange creatures, darkness, complexity, political and economic intrigue, real-world analogues, and characters I can root for. The Last Page largely stands on its own, but for me the ending left me confused and wanting and I’m pleased to know that it is merely the first entry in a duology, with The Black Bottle scheduled for release next year. I can’t wait. 7.5/10

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