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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan

Vellum: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan. New York: Del Rey, 2005. ISBN: 0-345-48731-1

The blurbs on the back of the book insist that this book is “a mind-blowing read that's genuinely unlike anything you've ever read before” and “A remarkably ambitious debut novel. For lovers of innovative fantasy, it's a must-read.”

And I have to agree with all of that, up to a point. There are some fascinating bits and pieces of mythology and ideas woven into the book. The idea that the original “book of life” or some other ancient and supernatural tome has somehow survived into modern times, and that one could actually find and use this book to travel into other realities is intriguing and truly compelling. And that there is a conflict going on between good and bad angels, “unkin,” as they're frequently called in this book, ancient and virtually immortal beings such as the angel Metatron, the being formerly known as Enoch, who lived as a human mortal on this earth, but was later translated to a higher level of being, this too is fascinating stuff.

In the author's “Acknowledgments” section, found at the end of the book, rather than the beginning, Duncan lists his debt to several “ancient myths, poems and plays,” as he calls them. He specifically cites a Sumerian epic, “Inanna's Descent into the Underworld,” and also credits Virgil's “The Golden Age Returns,” and “The Song of Silenus,” plus Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the parts of the book that were based on these classical and pre-classical stories to be nearly as compelling or interesting as the ideas I described in the previous paragraph, and Duncan provides no sources for these ideas and stories.

The biggest problem with the book, however, is that in its present form, it's virtually unreadable. It takes a truly dedicated and determined reader to make it through. I don't think your traditional fantasy fan, lover of Tolkien and his many facile imitators, is going to have the patience for this tome.

What's the problem? Duncan's style, his approach to telling the story. It's SO fragmented, SO disjointed, SO completely disorganized, at least at first read, that you often feel like you're reading the bits backward. Things never happen in any kind of linear fashion. Forwards, backwards, through time and characters you go, willy nilly, with rarely any sense of where you are or what's happening. To describe the book as a massive jumble, an enormous potpourri of characters, themes, stories, tales, poetry, song, bits and pieces of this and that, would be an understatement.

There is much here that is compelling, a word I've already used at least twice in this review, but there is also much that is frustrating, tantalizing, hinted at, but never realized. In my honest opinion, Duncan could have benefited immensely from a hard-nosed, hypercritical, supercritical even, editor. Someone who would have not merely suggested, but insisted on major rewriting (or at least reorganizing) of major sections, to provide at least SOME slight semblance of sanity and order, some sense of sequence and seriality to this morass.

I will admit that I do have the feeling that if I would only read the book again, perhaps it would all make more sense, and I would figure out more of what was supposed to be happening, if not precisely what it all means. But to be perfectly honest, I have neither the patience nor the fortitude to do so. This book could have been SO much more than it was, at least for me. The book has great promise, which is unfortunately, only partially realized.

Marginally recommended at best, for fans of ancient mythology reworked, or for those intrepid souls who truly do want something totally different than anything they've read before, and who don't mind being mentally twisted and turned this way and that as they read.


  • If it's too hard for you, stick to the Star Wars series. LOL.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:21 PM  

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