Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Hal Duncan
Macmillan, 600 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 Review: Vellum
SF Site Interview: Hal Duncan

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Sean Wright

Scottish author Hal Duncan's demanding SF debut is the first in a two-book series about an epic war between demons and angels. It chronicles the history of the sophisticated, ancient and commanding civilization of Kur through Egyptian, Babylonian and East Indian myth as well as bitmites, cyber-avatars and warring bands of fallen angels, the unkin. Vellum is both a gateway to multiverse realities and a manual to a language of supremacy which can be both emblazoned in the skin and on the soul.

First, I have to say that Hal Duncan is mad, and one hell of a writer. The mad is a compliment in the sense that he has messed about with narrative structure to such an extent in Vellum that one is ping-ponged all over a variety of points in time, as well as a lot of character POV changes. The prose is manic, elegant, assured, witty, varied, and memorable for the most part. Strange combo, I know, but it's how I perceive his work. It took me six months to read Vellum -- on and off. I'd pick it up and be wowed and confused. I'd put it down. Drawn to it again a few days later. It's that kind of book -- deep, layered, intelligent, annoying, different, and yet it plays with familiar myths and stereo-types. Vellum has a lot of energy. It's a tiring read, makes you think, thrills -- and because of its unusual structure, is without doubt a challenging book. And yet there's an honesty, a ring of truth to Duncan's prose when he gets into full swing. I like that.

Vellum is told through multiple viewpoints. Namely, the characters Seamus Finnan, Jack Carter, Thomas Messenger and Thomas's sister, Phreedom, whose lives are ruined, exposed and eternally scarred by links with a dimension called the Vellum, resurface at intervals often decades later. Their narratives in the human, inter-dimensional and cyber universes are undoubtedly difficult to follow in a linear sense. Duncan paints with a huge ambitious canvas. He takes risks. Perhaps too many. However, readers who persist will find this a remarkable and rewarding read, despite the ranging narrative and spliced plotlines.

So what does such ambitious risk-taking Vellum add to literature? Strangeness -- very British in its nature, a writer who loves to toy and play with the genre's tropes and creates something challenging in the process. Jack Flash is pure, over-the-top brilliance. I loved that guy! His damn-the-devil attitude is one of the book's strong points. But back to the strangeness of the book. I think Duncan doesn't need the mythical elements as much as he might think. Yes, they add to the strangeness, but the way he handles them gives the book an antiquated feel. To my mind at least. This jars with the newness of Jack Flash, for example. This strangeness, the bizarre, the weird cannot be named. As soon as it is: it's dead! Known and therefore no longer a mystery. Yet there's a race called the unkin who really are a very messed up bunch of... angels! I also like the idea of the cant language, a key of sorts for re-writing personal histories.

I like these ideas of a multiverse (thanks Mr. Moorcock), this frontal, lateral, and residual time motif is also something I can relate to. I think Hal Duncan's treatment of these elements is intriguing and complex. The characters are strong enough to carry the whole thing off. They appear as many incarnations at various points of time, and flesh out the overall feel of them as people we can sympathise with and relate to. This is a very commendable debut novel -- with some beautiful writing, which is wise beyond Mr Duncan's years in regard to insights into myth, human behaviour, and the complexities of notions of good and evil, angels, creation, and many of the larger questions of life. It's not an easy read, I think because of its structure, but also because of its subject matter. The mythical elements require some knowledge of them if you want to get the full picture. It's a clever book, from a clever, intellectual writer. It may even be some kind of benchmark for things to come. Time, indeed, in its many forms, will tell.

Copyright © 2006 Sean Wright

Sean Wright is three-time British Fantasy Award finalist, editor and publisher at Crowswing Books, and an outspoken voice at Lotus Lyceum, a multi-user open community of fantastic fiction. He's the author of books set in the mythic mindscape world called Jaarfindor. His vibrant blog is a port of call for many sff readers, writers and editors at

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide