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Vellum is a non-linear re-imagining of the world's myths and religions through an end-of-the-world scenario, intertwining many thematic elements of horror, science fiction and fantasy. I loved reading it, it was challenging, grand, audacious, and engaging. If you enjoy reading challenging fantasy/sci-fi/horror and can tolerate non-linear narrative than you will love reading this novel. Though as a reader that enjoys non-linear narrative it is not without its literary criticisms. Warning there is a lot of homo-erotic imagery (which doesn't quite cross the line of gratuitous).if you have problems with that, best to avoid this work.
Overall Vellum follows the story of six or seven characters through different incarnations and histories which are intertwined through myth and history and legend through to the end of this world and the next. The overriding thread that ties these characters through all of their different incarnations is the Vellum, the Book of Names, the Book of all hours, in which all that exists or will exist in this existence, or the next (or the existence next-door) is written. The characters are members of the Unkin whom have the word of god, or their mystical names placed on their very being. These characters are the incarnations, re-incarnations, and re-iterations of the various gods, spirits, angels and demon archetypes. They play and re-play their parts throughout histories both real and imagined from the beginning of the world to the end, through this world and the next and are inferred in an infinity of other worlds throughout the book. Hal Duncan has drawn parallels of the different spiritual archetypes and strung them together into a narrative that encompasses the genres of classic and contemporary horror, post-modernism, cyber-punk and pulp sci-fi-fantasy. The cast is a who's who of "Finches Mythology" from ancient Sumer to Contemporary Gothic Horror archetypes with a heavy reliance on your catholic Angels, Fallen Angels and Demons. The main theme of the novel is the duality of good and evil, the connectedness of all the world's faiths, and the place of man in the scope of reality between faith and science. The main characters defy fate and religion and pay their prices as they are fated as they experience Armageddon, Ragnarok, or whatever end of the world scenario you subscribe to. Other than that, explanations are either too short to give justice to the depth of the narrative, or so long that the map becomes the territory (pun just realized, but apt). The novel begins, has a middle and a satisfying ending (which is better than many novels) though not necessarily all in that order.
The bad:The DNA of this book is all over it. Styles are largely cribbed from other authors, the influence of William Burroughs, HP Lovecraft, and Kurt Vonnegut are the most obvious (Joyce is also quoted by other reviewers and I will take them at their word, I haven't read Joyce so I wouldn't know), other influences read like the best of SF library of Phillip Dick, Phillip Farmer, William Gibson, Neal Stephanson, Anne Rice to those Myst novels (though Hal Duncan's imagining of the literary mechanism is so far superior to those disappointments it is not hardly worth mentioning). The transitions are often jarring, the parallels are sometimes tortured and not all of the ideas fit together in one neat package. Sometimes the novel seems to wander from the main story to be a love-letter tribute to a favorite author (Lovecraft dominates the whole middle of the story).
The good: The characters are engaging, likable, hatable or inscrutable as necessary through all their incarnations. The story and characters and the interplay between them defy labels without becoming convoluted (possibly confused). What is bad about this novel is also what is good, (there is a hypocritical element here) though the styles and themes have been explored before the author executed them deftly without ringing as just a derivative of other authors work. This is almost something new, the post-modern pure sci-fi/fantasy/horror novel (without all the heroin and navel-gazing) that still holds together as a complete story. The audacity and the scope of the novel is also encouraging. That it is written with great heart makes this a great read. Hal Duncan is a hell of a writer and I hope he is able to visit the same muse for his following works (Ink is out now, and I intend to read it). If you are a fan of Vonnegut, Pynchon, Burroughs, Lovecraft. you will probably really enjoy this novel.
Buy it; if you like being challenged by good literature. If you love scrutinizing Vonnegut and Pynchon, unraveling Burroughs or imagining the unspeakable horrors of Lovecraft, you will probably enjoy this.
Avoid it; if you are not a fan of non-linear narrative, or just want a distracting page-turner. If you have issues with the homo-erotic, you will want to steer clear. If you are intrigued pick up Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49" or Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" as a trainer.
The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial Fiction Library)
Breakfast of Champions
Naked Lunch: The Restored Text