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Vellum: The Book Of All Hours: 1 by Hal Duncan

01/09/2005. Contributed by Phil Jones

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pub: Macmillan. 526 page hardback. Price: 17.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-4050-5208-2.

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The start of the book is a bit like being thrown in at the deep end. Multi-threaded, the writing comes at you at different angles, times, places and viewpoints. Information is thrown at you thick and fast. I must admit I was starting to think, oh no, it's been over researched. The writing though has its own style and pace that just takes a bit of getting used to.

Vellum is the layer or paper-like substrate reality is written on. Chaotic, flowing and non-linear fashion, reality, what has been, was, is and what is to come in a dynamic state. Time and space folding in three dimensions. Heaven, God and angels only having a small amount of control over it. Some, though, want to create a perfect Utopia even if it means an apocalypse on Earth, a small scratch on the vellum's surface.

There is a war between Heaven and Hell. This book though it's really not that simple.

Metatron, the voice of God as he is sometimes known, gods scribe, once the Prophet Enoch before becoming an angel. He, like many of the characters in this book have 'evolved' from ancient souls, gods or people. They become unkin. Some like Metatron think unkin should choose a side and have it 'written' into the very fabric or reality that is their soul. Using nanotechnology, mindworms and sleeper agents like Jack Carter. He is a pawn of Metatron who doesn't even know he is unkin. There are those who are in the middle and do not wish to choose sides. They remember what it was to be human. Phreedom Messenger, who lived a trailer park existence now searches for her brother across the vellum with Jack Carter and others on their trail.

Seamus Finnan, an Irish angel, is hiding out in the desert, befriends Thomas and Phreedom and tells them perhaps a little too much about what is really going on. He has experienced war first hand and doesn't want to go there again.

Firstly, if you don't like non-linear plots then steer well clear. Hal Duncan makes the likes of Steve Aylett and Robert Rankin look like perfectly linear authors. Right warning over. This man writes to say the least. There isn't plot development, direction or character development as you would normally experience in a book. This is freeform writing and structure. I would say there is form, depth and pattern though to Hal's writing.

If you imagine writing as a fractal then this is a good way of explaining this book. Scale, now follow me. We start with a war on one level. In a character's mind or between a character's soul and bitmites (nanotechnology that can delve through memories and rewrite the soul) or the multi-national war such as the First World War or war between opposing factions of unkin (angels) fallen or not, stretching across the Vellum and so on. Patterns but on differing scales. Like a coastline looks similar no matter what scale you look at it. In a similar way, elements of this book are similar just on differing scales.

The writing is chaotic, but there is a pattern, either on a fractal (scale) level or parallels in plot threads. You may rapidly have a character in the present with paragraphs switching between the character and a story of ancient gods or Greek legends. For example, either closely or loosely linked. At the start of the book, we are presented with a huge info burst on the book of all hours interspersed with what seems totally unrelated plot lines and treads. These are sometimes picked up almost randomly tens of pages later.

It is almost like looking at the treads of a tapestry all mixed up before it is sown. You get a feel of colour of tone, but it's not until you finish the book that you really get any sense of pattern or an idea of the final picture.

Some threads diminish while others grow in force. You are left with many questions, but a few are answered once you have finished the book. I think you will get a more complete picture when you read the next book.

There is a huge amount of sources that Hal Duncan draws upon. Ancient Greek and Sumerian texts along with reference to the First World War and the Spanish civil war to name a few. Modern is mixed with ancient to provide the reader with a wealth of background. There is wonderful imagery created with Hal's writing but I think sometimes it's lost in the midst of jumble of threads and differing paragraphs and sections. I think the only real problem I had with the book is it sometimes lacks focus. There's a few areas which don't seem to fit with the overall style and feel out of place or juxtaposed from the book. These could though fit together more neatly with the advent of the coming second book.

Not much is given in this book. It is left to the reader to fit the pieces of this book together. Much like classic Science Fiction, vagueness allows the reader their own interpretation of the story and events. This is the first book that reads like an exercise in chaos and complexity. The writing itself is a character, the rapid switching and changing point of view, reference or lack of it mimics the Vellum itself. I think the Vellum is really the only one true character in this book. The only reality on which the rest is displayed. Seamus is interesting, though, and is the only character which is truly bought to the fore within the cast of unkin, gods and legends.

So, did I like it? To start with, I did think what the F***"! Once you get into the flow, style and context of the book it does have, a life of its own. It is challenging and complex and not an easy read. If you do want to read this book, it may be an idea to flick through a copy and read a few sections just to get a feel for it and see if it's your cup of green tea.

I think I went through all shades while reading this book. Angel's warring or going off the rails has been done before (Pullman and Dogma). 'Vellum' does bring something new and you have got to admire both Hal Duncan and the publisher for attempting to bring such a book out. Some people will just think it's pretentious and an exercise in writing chaotically. I do think Hal Duncan is playing with our minds. Trying to break conventions and step out the cardboard box of normality. If you like authors who write non-linearly or are fans of Moorcock or Gaiman then this may be your flavour. After reading the book in its entirety, I have to say I was impressed. I think I will not be truly happy though until I have read the second book.

Phil Jones

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