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Hal Duncan
Del Rey, 530 pages

Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and is a member of the Glasgow SF Writer's Circle, an anarchist collective of a workshop, run on the Milford Rules, which taught him invaluable lessons in humility and restraint. These lessons are not always noticeable in his online rants about Strange Fiction, Indie Fiction or Infernokrusher, but he hopes that his tendency to excess will improve with age. His first novel, Vellum, has earned him critical acclaim which he tries to be modest about, but generally fails. Having recently left a steady job as a computer programmer to write full-time, he is very much hoping this kudos can be converted to cold hard cash, so he never again has to get up before 11:00 am, an ungodly hour of the morning. Ink, concludes the story begun in Vellum.

Hal Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Vellum
SF Site Review: Vellum
SF Site Interview: Hal Duncan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

So, you open the book, turn past the dedication to Koré, and begin. And your heart sinks. A first person narrator visits an uncle and his dog Koré, and the uncle tells him: you want to be a writer, here's a great story. And you think: Vellum doesn't deserve this. Vellum was a mess, a sprawling, swaggering, aggressive mess, but through the too-many stories there was still a thin, frail thread of Story leading you through. And it was a big enough book that it deserves to be about something more than the little metaphor of being a writer. Oh it has to be there -- Ink, Vellum, how could you hope to escape the metaphor of writing? -- but please, as part of a bigger, grander mix, not as the guiding principle of the book.

Fortunately Hal Duncan is too brash and arrogant a writer to tie himself down so lightly.

Ink, the sequel to Vellum and the concluding part of The Book of All Hours, is a mess, a sprawling, swaggering, aggressive mess. It is also one of the most ambitious books you're likely to encounter this year. And it comes as close to making sense of its predecessor as even the most optimistic of us might have hoped.

The titles of the two volumes are suggestive. If Vellum laid out the pages of myth and story and the multiverse, Ink is about what is inscribed upon those pages. Or rather, how the various players in the game attempt to inscribe their own mark upon the Vellum. More precisely, it is a book that moves from chaos towards order.

Vellum swept us up in a shape-shifting confusion of characters who were not characters but archetypes, roles not people. Ink continues with the shape-shifting, but now the roles are becoming more clearly defined and the focus of the work is narrowing down upon a small theatrical cast. In the first half of the book that is precisely what they are, a small group of travelling players performing a souped-up version of The Bacchae by Euripedes in a pseudo-medieval fold of the vellum. Meanwhile, swirling around this core the same archetypes are acting out different versions of the same drama in a variety of fascistic, blood-soaked avatars of the twentieth century.

We can see them more clearly now. Don MacChuill who is also Don Coyote, a name which neatly enfolds Cervantes' knight and the trickster god, is both a foul-mouthed Scot and the distanced commentator on the scene. Guy Fox (a reference more to V for Vendetta than to Guido Fawkes?) is also Reynard or Reinhardt, the plotter, the writer. Thomas Messenger, Tamuz or Puck, is both the knowing object of homosexual desire and the perennial sacrifice. But the two who most occupy centre stage are Joey Pechorin, Joey Narcosis, the Judas figure driven to betrayal by desire and impatience; and Jack Carter, Jack Flash, Springheeled Jack, also Iacchus or Bacchus, the wild hero and also the lord of misrule.

It is a very masculine company very given to violence. Duncan has a gleeful way of describing mayhem and murder. Any minor figure outside the sacred circle, indeed any casual passer-by, is virtually doomed to a messy death. But he's an even-handed writer: his central figures suffer equally, indeed at one time or another virtually all of them are subjected to graphic torture or callous cruelty. And since, within this multiverse, they are the equivalent of immortals, he does not have to worry too much about their survival, they will simply reappear whole in some other fold, or the scene will be re-shot with a different ending. One of the abiding themes of the book is an abhorrence of war and its consequences, but it is difficult to square this with Duncan's obsessive, almost pornographic interest in the minutiae of pain and injury.

In such a male milieu, it is unsurprising that manifestations of sexual desire and satisfaction are entirely homosexual. Yet, until the end, homosexuality is invariably linked with shame, self-disgust and usually death. It is as if Duncan is edging around something that is both attractive and discomforting at the same time. Certainly there is no comfort, no nurturing anywhere in this world. Those, of course, are attributes traditionally associated with the female figure in the myths and stories that Duncan has twisted and entwined into this narrative. And there is a woman in the sacred circle, Phreedom, also known as Anna or Anat, who is at various times described as sister or mother of one of the other archetypes though she does not do much to fulfil these roles. Significantly, it is only in the epilogue that she takes on the third role traditionally assigned to women, that of wife, so it is only in these last few pages that there is any sense of comfort and nurturing in the book. But Phreedom is absent from the first half of this volume, except as a passive observer (there are suggestions along the way that the five are searching for their lost companion, but such a quest is hardly a driving force in the narrative). When she does emerge into the action, it is with as much violence and bloodshed as any of her male colleagues, and this gender-neutral role remains her lot throughout most of the rest of the book.

In this first part of the book the characters are more cohesive as a group, have more of a sense of purpose, than they did in Vellum, but they are still adrift in the multiverse, at the mercy of forces beyond their knowledge or control. That changes in the second part. Here the six have become a sort of trans-temporal A-Team, heading out on missions to identifiable and accessible points in the multiverse, assuming their archetypal roles as if in an episode of Mission: Impossible. Now they know the forces ranged against them, can find their way through the Vellum, and have a clear goal in mind. They are out to find the last edition of The Book of All Hours.

The quest takes them to a version of Palestine in 1929, and what happens here will form the spine of this half of the book. War hero Jack Carter arrives on a quest to find his old professor, Samuel Hobbsbaum (an avatar of Seamus Finnan, the absent seventh member of the group and the one who inevitably is the key to it all). There he joins forces with a mysterious Prussian Baron, Reinhardt, a sexually promiscuous local boy called Tamuz, a violent Scot, MacChuill, and the surprising leader of a local tribe, Anat. Opposing them is the shadowy Russian, Pechorin. Stories and plays recur throughout the two novels as our way of constructing and understanding and shaping our world: the play the troupe performs in the first half of this novel, the radio broadcasts of Don Coyote throughout the book, and so on. Here the conflict is reproduced in passages from a host of different books, including a cowboy novel by Joe Campbell, a thriller by R. Graves and of course, inevitably and recursively, Ink by Hal Duncan.

So we come back to that initial dread: it is indeed a novel about story. But story, not writing. The writers in this book, attempting to forge or revise The Book of All Hours, fail, causing more mayhem than they were trying to correct. But story wins; recasting the Bible to undermine our most comforting myths, and presenting the twentieth century as a blood-soaked echo of myths that go back before the earliest civilisations, story becomes not just the way we apprehend the world but the way we can finally throw off the yoke of the future and forge a world not doomed by its past. It is a daring concept, grandiose, florid, messy; and Ink comes nowhere near achieving its ambition. Oh but the ambition is grand; would that other writers might aim so high and fail so spectacularly.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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