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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Vellum, by Hal Duncan, Del Rey, 2006, $14.95.

His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik, Del Rey, 2006, $7.50 IT'S

BEEN A long time since I've come across a book like Vellum, the astonishing first novel by Hal Duncan. Actually, I don't think there is a book like it, but let me explain what I mean by that: I read the book, and after I closed the covers the first time, I felt compelled to go back over it, examining the parts that make up the whole, to try to absorb more of the subtleties embedded in its fractured narrative.

Vellum is entirely engaging on an intellectual level, but if it were only that, I wouldn't have gone back to it again. To go by the prologue, from the two simple and eloquent words "people die," the book itself seems straightforward enough. Friends, mortality, dreams of a universal font of knowledge—human nature broken into bits, each convincing enough to reveal the depth of author observation, the little gestures, the things said and unsaid that make characters more than the words used to draw them. Four friends, Puck (neé Thomas), Joey, Jack, and Guy, in university, living simple lives.

Guy Reynard has believed all his life in The Book of All Days, and he knows where it will be found, where it can be found, and he does, indeed, collect it from its home beneath glass in the university library. So far, so good.

Guy Reynard's book begins a journey, and it's natural to expect somehow that the book that follows will reflect that. It does. Sort of.

But that's the prologue, and the book starts with the myth of Inanna, and then turns to the story of Phreedom, twisting back and forth between the narrative of myth and the very contemporary voice of a girl on the edge of adulthood who is trying to discover who she is in a future world that has little to do with Guy and his circle of friends. She and her brother, Thomas, live in a commune of sorts, with parents who were once hippies. And they come to Finnan, a man who won't speak of his past, but who fixes odds and ends that break down, and lives in a trailer. This, by the way, is so much less straightforward in the narrative; the force of the myth overlying the story of the girl feels like a Kelly Link short, with its weft of words and its echoes, and its unusual structural weight.

Thomas leaves the family. His sister misses him, waits, and knows on some level that he won't be coming back, but she continues to visit Finnan, the gruff, dirty wise man on the edge of their lives. Finnan has always seen in Thomas and Phreedom something other, some glimmer of a truth that their parents don't possess, and he's willing to guide them, carefully, into the unknown.

Phreedom's life is changed the day she first meets the Angel. When she meets the Angel, she first truly hears the Cant, the song and the language that underlie all things with a power that simple words don't have. Finnan seems to know the Angel, and the Angel to know Finnan. The Angel calls Finnan unkin, and tells him that the unkin are being called upon to choose a side in the War. Finnan refuses, because he's seen war before and he doesn't much care for what it does to the soldiers.

The Angel recognizes that Phreedom is touched by the same strangeness that touches Finnan, that she is more than human but not yet awakened. And he tells her his hidden name. His true name. She uses it, to both his shock and Finnan's, to drive him from Finnan's trailer.

Afterward, Phreedom asks Finnan to grave upon her what he sees in her, and he gives her her true name, her identity, the truth of her being, awakening her to her life as one of the unkin—the immortals who can traverse the Vellum—the fabric upon which reality is written, as god commanded. He then disappears after spending one night with her. And Phreedom disappears to find her missing brother.

And the myth of Inanna, who went to visit her sister, the Queen of the dead, continues as Phreedom winds her way across possibilities, realities, earths that are ours and not ours, as she learns that time is not linear in the Vellum. That life is both more and less than it appears.

The Angels want to rewrite the world in their own shining image: a thing of glory and justice and truth. But they have flaming swords and little care for what gets destroyed in the process, because what will replace it will be so much better. And their enemies? The fallen, the so-called demons, the warlords.

She finds the Queen of the dead, at last, in a tattoo parlor in a shady part of some town, and accepts the choice offered her: she wants to follow her brother. She must remain hidden from the Angels with their Book of Names. She has to choose a different name. She chooses the name Inanna.

The graving of a dead, lost god. What, after all, were the unkin but gods? And what is death, in the Vellum, when the Vellum holds everything?

The story of Guy Reynard continues, as he reads his book of maps and wanders for years beyond count through the worlds of the Vellum. It's there that he meets his Puck, his Thomas, or someone who looks much like him; there that he learns that he doesn't have to be alone; if he can scribe some name or some description of the people he approaches, they don't simply vanish when he comes too close. He is winding his way to somewhere, the journey more important than the arrival.

Intertwined with this are other Guy Reynards, other Guy Foxes, and other Thomases; there are other Jacks and other Joeys. There are other Finnans—Seamus Finnan, bound to rock and condemned to suffer there for the crime of giving fire to man, of thieving from the gods. Yes, myth again, and myth is both more than allegory and entirely allegory.

The war is in place, the Angels have gathered, and the fallen, and there is a third force loose in the world, unleashed by the death of, well, death. Unleashed by the unkin and free in the Vellum.

This is not a simple narrative, and structure is to me what shiny objects are to magpies. The structure of this book itself breaks after the prologue.

It's almost as if someone has taken a mirror, shattered it by dropping it on a perfect, obsidian floor, and then taken the narrative from the shards, picking up pieces, seemingly at random, and writing about them in the order they're retrieved. It isn't a pointless exercise; they're attempting to rebuild the mirror itself, and they know the pieces have to go in a certain way; they know how to put it together.

But we don't. We read it, we watch, we see the light as it begins to be reflected while the shards are put together. But at the end, at the end, what we have is a mirror strewn with cracks; we look at ourselves and see a broken reflection, something as true as a reflection can be from something so fractured, so faceted.

This book made me work, it made me think, it moved me in places to pity and even to the sense of wonder that I felt when I first approached fiction that had so little to do with the mundane. I'm still thinking about it; I still return to it; it lingers in the mind, in quiet times, and I can't quite leave it alone. It will not be for everybody, but it's striking, the language certain, the observations acute. Read it. Tell me what you think.

*     *     *

Naomi Novik's first novel, His Majesty's Dragon, is as different a book as you're likely to find. If you like Napoleonic, this is the book for you. If you like dragons, this is the book for you. If you like well-written, sympathetic characters, this is also the book for you. If you like military fantasy, this—yes, you know the drill. This is the book for you. In fact, of all the fantasies to come along in recent years, this is pretty much the very happy kitchen sink for readers—I think it has something for everyone. It's not the intellectual tangle that Vellum is, but frankly, it's a far more relaxing read; it has a little bit of everything.

Captain Will Laurence, with a crew under his command, intercepts a French ship. They carry a cargo of significant import: a dragon egg. Dragons are used by the feared, shunned, and desperately needed aviators—the men and women who keep Britain's air space safe, in the way the navy keeps its waters safe. It's not a life that's respected, for aviators must live apart from the rest of society, for fear that their dragons might somehow escape and eat everything in sight that moves, including people. It's certainly not the life for a gentleman.

But Captain Laurence realizes that someone must take responsibility for the dragon, lest it go wild and feral, and names are drawn to see who that unfortunate is. The drawn name, however, is not the dragon's choice. And in the end, a man well-situated in life, a captain at last of his own ship, must take on the responsibility and leave the life he loves in order to fulfill it.

There is much that is moving in this book, and the turn of phrase and formality of much of the interaction is bang on without pushing the boundaries of the accessible for a contemporary audience. There is much that is clever, and much that is historical—and it all falls together so perfectly, it's hard to believe that this is a first novel.

But it is, and it's a joy of a first novel, a wonderful take on dragons, on those who fly them, and on the relationship that unfolds. Not quite the McCaffrey dragons, and certainly not the bestial terrors of other books, this is about the relationship that develops between Temeraire and his pilot.

This is the kind of book that you want to spoil; you want to bounce up and down about it. Instead of sinking you into a quiet well of deep thought, it makes you want to squeal. Well, I mean, if you're younger than me. It's perfect escapism, but as in all perfect escapism, it has things to say about society and people that bear reading, and it is never heavy-handed.

Go go go. Read it and enjoy.

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