Vellum: The Book of All Hours 1 Paperback – Oct 29 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Scottish author Duncan's challenging SF debut, the first in a two-book series about an epic battle between good and evil, reveals the history of the advanced, ancient and powerful civilization of Kur through Egyptian, Babylonian and East Indian myth as well as bitmites, cyber-avatars and warring bands of fallen angels. A book, The Vellum (aka The Book of All Hours), is both portal to parallel realities and guide to a language of power that can be both inscribed in the skin and on the soul. Since individual characters like Seamus Finnan, Jack Carter, Thomas Messenger and Thomas's sister, Phreedom, whose lives are destroyed, prolonged and forever scarred by contact with a realm called the Vellum, tend to appear and reappear at intervals often 20 or 40 years apart, their adventures in the human, parallel and cyber universes can be hard to follow. Readers who persevere will find this a truly rewarding read. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Following the trail of a family legend, Reynard Guy Carter finds The Book of All Hours, aka the Vellum, a blueprint for all creation written by the scribe of God after the word was spoken. Carter thereafter wanders the strange, deserted worlds of the Vellum, while angels and demons, the Covenant and the Sovereigns, battle for control of the order of everything. Within the Vellum, Phreedom Messenger is on a quest to find her brother that will lead her to the very depths of the underworld in a movement parallel to Innana's descent to the underworld of Ereshkigal; and Seamus Finnan, her brother's betrayer and an old friend, is, like Prometheus, bound for his sins. The paths the three characters follow become a scintillating web of journeys across worlds and through the three dimensions of time. Duncan's version of a battle among the messengers of divinity proves fascinating as it takes unexpected turns within the framework of ancient myths. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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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
The problem I had with it is more a matter of my own personal taste than a true criticism of the book. With such a convoluted story and so much jumping from one reality to another, one version of the same character to another, I never felt like I really knew the characters and I was unable to get attached to them. To me, the most important thing in any story is the characters, so this hindered my enjoyment and made it hard for me to force myself to continue.
This had been recommended to me by someone on a House of Leaves forum, and I was very excited, as that was one of my favorite books. But House of Leaves was extremely focused on its characters, giving one a very deep look inside their heads. Where with this one, I couldn't always guess what a character's true feelings are.
If one likes a challenge and a lot of mythology, and doesn't mind not getting to know characters very well, then this is very much worth reading. Actually, it is worth reading no matter what, I'd say.
The basic concept here is one group of superhuman beings versus another. Angels versus demons, all mixed up with ancient gods and supernatural beings. Ah, cool. Let's tie the mythology of all cultures together, uniting all the those stories of gods and goddesses together with the christian mythology of angels and demons and tie it all to an underlying premise that makes everything make sense. Then let's tell a really good story around it. Oops, forgot the really good story. Also forgot interesting protagonists, compelling plot, and page-turning suspense. Decided instead to substitute tortured, wandering prose, uninteresting and venal characters with some massive chip on the shoulder because they're homosexual, and a collection of chapters that follow three different story lines, never particularly well, and without ever really tying anything together.
There are books that do make you work hard for an enjoyable payoff. When they are well done though they dribble out rewards for you along the way, escalating to ever better satsifaction with the novel. This is not one of those books. This book provides no rewards along the way but instead sets up a tautology that dictates you must suffer the authors world-views, angst, self-doubt, prejudices, and fears in order to appreciate this work. Bollux. Give me a writer who can tell a story and who doesn't subject me to his personal hang-ups. This books pretends airs and grandiosity, but is simply hollow and irritating. Want a good Angels/Demons war story? Try The Shivered Sky by Matt Dinniman. The premise in Vellum is better but the story-telling in the Shivered Sky blows this book away.
Wow. The first twenty-five pages of this book are amazing. Thoroughly captivating stuff, especially for book geeks. A university student, guided by research in amazingly out-of-the-way places, stumbles upon the Book of All Hours hidden in the rare books room at his university. The Book of All Hours is an amazing thing that opens up doors to other worlds. You read this stuff and you know this is going to be one fantastic adventure tale, the kind of thing you will devour in one sitting, forgoing food and sleep, and then will press on your kids, and their kids, and your friends, and their kids, and so on as long as you live.
And then you hit page twenty-six, and everything gets bollixed up.
Reynard Carter is the protagonist of those first twenty-five pages, and when he's getting screen time, this is a good book. It never quite reaches the heights of those first twenty-five pages again, but it's still good. He, unfortunately, is a character in very little of the ensuing manuscript (what of it I was able to read, anyway; I gave up in disgust a little less than halfway through). His polar opposite is a character with the painful name of Phreedom Messenger, and for coming up with that name alone Duncan should have all of his writing utensils taken away from him forevermore; it doesn't help that her portion of the book (as large as Reynard's is small) is as dry as the dust her motorcycle's always kicking up.
The "original" tag being constantly bandied about perplexes me; all of the qualities that people find so original about this book were done, and far better, in Gaiman's American Gods. Okay, so Gaiman's missing an infinitely large parallel world in which to run around. (Here's hoping he rectifies that eventually.) But, really, if you're looking for myth reworking and amusing, compelling characters who personify those myths, how is Gaiman's name not the first one that comes to mind? (The mythpunks are burrowing through this particular burial mound as well, though in far more subtle fashion, and doing it with the kind of style and panache most writers only dream about.)
There is a great deal of potential in this book; I couldn't find any of it realized. It's possible, judging by a number of reviews I've read, that I didn't stick with it long enough. This may be so, but there's a limit to how much I'll suffer for someone else's art. Vellum is way, way over that line. (zero)