Vellum, the Book of All Hours: by Hal Duncan*
(Not really a review; more of a reaction, and an exhortation.)
I read a lot of good writing. I select for it, that's why. I know where to look for the kind of stuff I like. I often read something, a story or a novel, and am pleased. I may think, "That kicked ass." (Rudi Dornemann's story in the latest Rabid Transit, which I just read the other day, falls into that category.) I may think, "I wish I'd done that." Or I may think, "That's better than I could do." (Often it's more along the lines of "I would have never thought to have done that," and that often comes down to me being a particular sort of writer with particular concerns and interests when it comes to stories. So I usually don't get too worried about that.)
What happens much less often is that I read a story or a novel and think to myself, "Shit. I need to try harder."
Vellum is one of those books. It's so good that after I finished it, at 2 AM after a long day, I couldn't fall asleep. I felt so challenged by this book, as a reader and a writer, that I simply couldn't let it go that easily. And now, four days later, I still haven't digested it fully.
Vellum is an engrossing book. It's not a quick read or a page-turner. It requires attention. But when I was reading it, no matter where I was, you couldn't have distracted me with a ballpeen hammer to the skull. I was completely pulled into the mingling of myths and archetypes swaggering across the pages. Hal's not just creating characters; he's extracting all the blood and ink from the palimpsest of deep history and language, and walking it around and fucking with its memories. Time and identity stand still and flow backwards and are subject to change without notice. And the fight, of course. The fight is still going on, the one without beginning or end, the one where the bad guys and the good guys look and act pretty much alike and the only way to win is to not take sides.
Pan MacMillan makes it sound as though Hal Duncan has turned fantasy fiction inside out. It's more like he ran it over with a steamroller, stretched it over the hollow stump of an oak and recited epic poems while spanking out a punk rock beat. Aside from the dead and anonymous authors of world mythology, Vellum nods at Moorcock, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Moore, Peake (who makes a cameo appearance) and others, then leaves them behind. Hal Duncan's world is a book, but that doesn't give the whole picture; it's an atlas of stories, infinitely large, populated by gods and angels and legends. From the Sumerians to the Rolling Stones, from the No-Man's-Land of World War I to the storied confines of Asheville, North Carolina, from the familiar imaginary to the unimagined, sometimes within the space of a paragraph.
I have to confess that I read the first half of this book with a mix of wonder and worry. Four months ago I hadn't heard of Hal Duncan, and despite what I've learned of him since (that he writes killer short stories and can reel off maddeningly smart blog-ersation at the drop of a hat), I didn't know that he could pull this off. But the end of Book One of Vellum snapped everything together in such a way that I had to put the book down. He knows what he's doing, and with the number of balls he's juggling, that's damned impressive. There's been some talk about the use of the term self-indulgent lately, which is something that has always seemed to me to boil down to "I didn't care." That just doesn't apply here. Hal cares about sharing his vision of stories, and that passion is palpable. The story is tight and sprawling at the same time; it's big and small and old and new.
I can't say whether others will react to this book as I have, or whether they'll be marking their calendars for the next volume (Ink, August 2006) to appear. But I would suggest, if fantasy is something you care about, that you will want to read this book regardless of what I say. I won't be the only one saying it. Get it.
*(Note: Amazon USA does have a listing for this book, but my understanding is that it's not actually releasing here until next year: meanwhile, Amazon UK has it.)