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Hal Duncan
Ballantine Books, 472 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, his next novel, will conclude the story begun in Vellum.

Hal Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Hal Duncan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jakob Schmidt

The documents a young student finds in the belongings of his grandfather unroll a story that spans all of human history and several universes. They send him on a journey into the Vellum: the timeless meta-reality of all worlds. Throughout the Vellum, the unkin, demigods whose battles and truces have governed the rise and fall of civilisations, are mobilising for the final war between heaven and hell -- obviously, these powerful beings are not any wiser than the rest of humankind. Between the grinding stones of history, some of the unkin desperately try to avoid the recruiting forces of both sides: Seamus Finnan has been a dissident and deserter throughout all his multiple lives, always being punished for taking side with the mortals... and Phreedom Messenger, a young women on a bike, who is also Inanna, the Goddess of the Heavens and the Earth, has a plan to remove herself from the game; a plan that will change all the rules...

Sometimes, you close a book with the distinct feeling that you'll only truly get it if you read it again, preferably right away. Of course you don't, since there are twenty other books waiting. So, you tell yourself, you'll save it for a time when you'll be able to truly appreciate it.

Some time later, you're about to write a review, and you still didn't get the time for a second reading. And you know that, while there are a thousand things you want to say about this book, you'll probably miss the most important one, since you don't know it yet.

Just keep that in mind... Vellum is a book demanding to be read twice -- at the very least. That doesn't mean that you don't have a clue at the end of the first reading -- it's just that you know that there's so much more. Therefore, I hope you will forgive me if I classify this review as work-in-progress. Actually, "enjoying sheer brilliance in progress" would probably be more adequate: Vellum is definitely the most interesting, original and challenging of all the books that have emerged among the recent wave of genre-bending sf/fantasy/horror-novels. It takes a lot of its cues from Cyberpunk, even more from ancient mythology, and manages to seamlessly weave in elements of fairy tale, Steampunk and Lovecraftianism. This may sound as if the author had crammed in every genre element he could think of to get his novel across as "weird." The opposite is true: Vellum is incredibly structured and focused. In terms of narrative, it even feels stripped down, only hinting at its extraordinary scenery were other genre novels would revel in lush descriptions.

In essence, Vellum is not about "genre crossing" because it's not so much about genre at all, but, in a very classical sense, about the characters. Hal Duncan utilises quite an extraordinary technique for making his characters "real." He establishes different versions of them. Most of the central characters live through many lives in many worlds, repeating the patterns of the story they're forced into. There's a multiplicity of point-of-view-characters, some of whom are moved to the centre of the narrative quite unexpectedly (watch out for the transformations of Jack!). Defined by various stylistic techniques and story elements associated with them, they emerge slowly, but distinctly. At the same time, they resist the forces of "story," that try to nail them down and define them within the mythological framework of their archetypes; they try to escape, not only in terms of plot, but in terms of characterisation. They're not "real" in the sense of full and rounded but "real" like something with edges (some of them non-euclidean) that resists being forced into a round hole. They don't like to be a function of plot, and there's no paint-by-numbers way to unlock these characters.

Given Duncan's technique, there's little use in trying to sum up the plot of Vellum, be it in one paragraph or in one hundred pages. It's all about patterns that emerge in parallel narration of different events. On first glance, you might be confused by the non-linear mode of narration, but reading further you'll find that figuring out the exact course of events isn't the key to Vellum: it's absorbing the story and the characters in all of their different incarnations. Vellum is a raw mixture that will crystallise into an unique gem in the mind of the attentive reader. Consequently, the crucial feature of the book is its repetitive structure -- and not only on the level of the narrative but also on that of sentence, semantics and sounds. A lot of sequences imitate the ritual-language style of Diane Wolksteins adaptation of ancient Sumerian writings -- following one sentence with an only slightly altered version of the same.

It may seem self-contradictory to claim that Vellum is stripped down and that it is repetitive at the same time. Wouldn't the former feature imply that the story is narrated with as little words as necessary? That's only true if you assume that a story can be reduced to this kind of core. Actually, this assumption is a central concept of the novel -- metaphorically, it appears as the concept of the "one language," in which signified and signifier collapse into each other, and the "ultimate story," the fate into which the characters are bound. But the style of Vellum not only captures this idea mimetically in its often onomatopoetic language, it also opposes it: repetition illustrates the constant failure of getting to the core, the constitutive lack of language. It makes us feel that each sentence slightly misses the mark, that is must be slightly altered -- again and again. This is not a mark of failure but of the possibility of change in face of the totalitarian force of story. The language of the book fights the same fight as its characters, trying to escape the force of the narrative, trying to change the story, while at the same time reinforcing its hypnotic power. The result is -- paradoxically -- a work of remarkable unity, in which style, plot and even sound speak to each other. It's a novel that constantly translates its concepts between the different features and levels of narrative.

Of course, Vellum is also a very contemporary political novel. The possibilities of dissidence are among its central concept -- basically, the characters of the novel are on the run not only from the powerful unkin, but from the rules of story, that, even though probably created by the unkin, bind even them. If you want a metaphor for radical utopian longing put against the crushing force of ideology, you won't find a better one. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to read Vellum as a straightforward political metaphor, where "the empty throne of god" stands for the confusion of our post-modern times or "the war in heaven" signifies the "war on terror": These metaphors don't work as direct translations from one scenery to the other, they're reiterations that twist and change the concepts involved.

Read Vellum. But be warned: Even though it's a fun ride, it's also a tough one, both intellectually and emotionally. There are real characters who experience real consequences -- many of them quite gruesome. And in the end, you may just feel that you're not ready to move on to the concluding sequel, Ink, before you have read Vellum once again. I certainly do.

Copyright © 2006 Jakob Schmidt

Jakob writes and translates reviews, essays and short stories, most of them for the German magazine Alien Contact ( and its publishing house Shayol. That's in his spare time, which luckily still makes up the bulk of his days.

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