Vellum

By Hal Duncan

We went to an ice cream social tonight at the library! I am so pleased that I attended a community event. While Fella and Filly were with Husband exploring the fire truck, I cruised the shelves. I am so bored with reading about men and women; I need books on gender roles and keep ending up with books on discrimination.

I was attracted to this book purely from the cover. I was over in the Ds looking for Stephen Donaldson just to see what they had (nothing) and the color caught my eye. I like fantasy; I like the suggestion of the subtitle. I am a little dismayed by the mediocre rating of this book on this site. I’ll give it a go anyway. I feel like a trailblazer.

UPDATE JULY 28
This book is sort of out there. I kinda get what he’s doing with all the mythology, but when you jump from myth to updated myth to present-day character for a couple of different people by paragraph–and you do this for ten pages in a row–you start to lose momentum. There’s this hit-you-in-the-face diatribe about Matthew Shepard and wacko Reverend Something Phelps that is told through one of the characters, and then the author leaves the story to report on what actually happened to an actual person named Matthew Shepard and what the actual wacko Reverend Phelps has done on his actual website. What’s the theater term? The fourth wall? Utterly demolished. It takes a long time to get back into the story after that.

I like the part where the one guy is wandering and wandering, and the descriptions of what he is seeing, but when suddenly this guy and his friends turn out to be these other characters too it is also jarring. I think we’ve got a case here of a really good story being interrupted by some really experimental structuring, and not for the better. I’ve decided that the book is more Gaiman than Eco, too.

I’m at page 190 or so and I think that the story is really going to get going, finally. For one person, these three disparate narrative threads have combined so you only have to keep the one character straight now, and this character has finally found a goal to work towards. We also finally get the character Metatron to reminisce in a linear way and fill in a lot of details that would have been nice to have during the jumping around. Were I to go back and reread the beginning, it would seem less chaotic, maybe.

I am not putting the book down. I’m still reading it, but more out of curiosity for what the plot could possibly be than out of investment in the characters. I really think I should have a better idea about this book than I do for how many pages I’m into it.

UPDATE AUGUST 6–SPOILERS GALORE
So I finished the book last night. In the end, I didn’t like it. It doesn’t work because it is too long and there is too much exposition on the same themes. The last ten percent of the book just went on and on and on, torturing poor Finnan and sending him through all these flashbacks. We were suddenly immersed in Endhaven, too, an environment that didn’t make a lot of sense any way you hashed it. It would have made an excellent place for a story of its own, but the reckoning with the rag and bones man, and what the rag and bones man was, and Evenfall, and all the other elements that were supposed to be the culmination of the events of an entire book were out of place.

What is very good about the book is the detailed mythology that the author brings into the story and how he wraps together archetypes and world events and battles of good and evil. The experimental structure of the book is interesting, and I think the author did something amazing: He actually represented a four-dimensional world and what it would be like to live in it. Greg Egan introduced some physical requirements for living in a fourth (or fifth, ad nauseum), but it was via a passing reference to needing another pair of limbs for stability. I am about to have a very difficult time making my point. Duncan’s story imagines time sort of as a fourth physical dimension that no one really moves through, at least not the main characters. It’s like the physical world changes around time, instead of time moving around the physical world. These unkin types are trapped in their stories, and their trials that occur ostensibly throughout history over and over appear to be happening all at once. I guess I could be misunderstanding the author’s intent; I guess the point could be that history repeats itself and you can’t change destinies. But with the fragmentation of the text and the switching from time and place by paragraph–like when the stories of Inanna and Phreedom are laid out side by side, or the various tales of Thomas alternate with the same endings–I was reading it as all of history is happening at once. It’s physical space that moves. It’s like the opposite of a hermit meditating in the same cave, getting older and frailer as time passes, changing even though he never leaves the spot. Instead, imagine a young hermit going to a cave and staying there, always young, but time changes everything else. Without moving through time, his environment is a cave, a cubicle, a jail cell, all kinds of things depending on what the most likely solitary occupation would be for whatever “page” of the history “book” you are looking at. We puny humans can only move from page to page in order, but the real players–the unkin–seem to be able to access all points of history at once. So when Head Angel Metatron makes a change in one time period, it affects all time periods at once. “Reality” rewrites itself simultaneously. Once the reader figures this out, it puts the characters in an amazing relationship to each other and adds a lot of suspense, and you really do start to wonder if the “rogue” unkin (like Finnan and Phreedom and Thomas) can assert themselves against the Powers that Really Be. It’s fascinating to watch them discover exactly how deep their personal stories are, too.

I couldn’t forgive Metatron for having that name. Yeah, yeah, “meta” represents suffused with meaning and import. But Tron? Yeah, yeah, electronics. Yeah, yeah, he deals in nanobots. But it’s a goofy name. It’s a terrible name. It’s like we step out into a Transformer fan fic every time it’s spelled.

I have a funny feeling that this book turns out in the end to just be a set up for the story the author really wanted to write about, probably Ink, which I’ve seen listed online and which has the same subtitle. It’s hard to tell, because although the characters are relatively easy to follow and their stories reasonably well-developed, the plot is not. You don’t know what environment to follow. Stories that get a lot of, well, screen time (like entering the Book of All Hours) are developed and developed and dropped. Stories that seem interesting fizzle out. Stories come out of nowhere. Landscapes and major catastrophes have no context. The point of view changes are one thing, but when they are cluttered with place changes and plot changes it all becomes one hot tranny mess. (I just wanted to use that phrase. Really it’s just a mess.) Like why are babies being born with wings? And why was Jack taken away from Phreedom? Things like these DRIP with significance but they turn out ultimately to be red herrings. Unless this is all just elaborate set up for the next book, a book I won’t read. Frankly, I have only the faintest idea about who to care about, or why. And the Vellum, for all that it’s important enough to name the book after, is just another dropped and murky storyline.

Maybe Phreedom finds her brother Tom. Maybe she is reunited with her son Jack. But if Jack and Tom are already lovers…

Skeevy pervs will be happy to learn that there are some lesbians in the book, but by the time we meet them it’s pretty clear they are no longer having sex. There are a few nuns, too, but you only see them working in a mental institution. They seem pretty old and addled and not very efficient. I guess they could be having sex with each other every chance they get and that’s why they are so distracted.

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