First part of a fantasy duology, and easily one of the best books I've read so far in 2010. Stunningly creative, a packed but exciting narrative that really engages with fantasy as mythology. There are a lot of thematic similarities that reminded me of American Gods and Sandamn, but I think across the book Duncan out-Gaimans Neil Gaiman. As with the best fiction what comes across here is vividness of the imagination, at once presenting items and concepts much stranger than would have occurred to be otherwise, and yet at the same time they’re such as to be fully credible. The work overlaps with the present world in a manner, but rather than competing with modern conventionjal existence or existing in isolation from it, the metaphysical scenario adds another level of complexity to human existence, building in layers of myth, dream and basic strangeness in a way that wraps around to the text itself again.
There’s much retelling of various cultures' myths, mixed with some specific character arcs and incorporations of the present, recent past and near future. At some points tracking the details and movements of the plot is tricky (multiple viewpoint characters, sometimes taken with parallel versions of themselves, told in non-linear order) but the direct situations are very compelling, and the overall blend of near-future science fiction-esque elements and deep myth is very effective. The work has some rather forceful things to say against organized religion, homphobia and U.S foreign policy, but it's tied into the story and manages to be powerful rather than preachy. Despite issues at times balancing the plot I found it workable because the prose is so strong and the characterization is solid enough to inspire trust in the story as it twists and turns across different realities. It also benefits from some extremely strong and mythologically impressive dramatic scenes. The book includes a near future segment with a mix of futuristic technology, high-concept magic, religious extremism in both East and West and chilling juxtapositions that’s especially powerful.
The book is rather unique in succeeding as well is does precisely by measure of its complexity, and in a sense it’s narrative messiness. Normally a good story is one that, in larger plot structure and concept is on some level a simple and clear layout. Here the plot is too intricate and mixed with cross-currents and side elements to be easily summarized, and it benefits precisely to the extent that it incorporates a wide variety of element in an arching network of causality and character transition. The book also contains a forceful narrative incporpoation of homosexuality that works as a progressive text because of how unapologetic it is, and that it doesn’t allow having the characters be gay make them less complex through being idealized or denegrated. The rendering of sexuality emerges in a variety of norms and situations, and makes some particularly powerful use of the body as a form of the self. There’s much of the same literary virtues as with Roberts’ On, but carried further and made a lot more dramatic. Ultimately there’s a mixture of myth, politics and character drama that suggests a host of other authors’ influences without being reduced to them. Another angle of its strength is the ability to show immensely wide scale of narrative approach while at the same time centering the story around the deeply understood mentality of the main characters.
The book is part of a duology called The Book of All Hours, a work that also appears as a main element for the mythical system and the quest to obtain it drives the over-reaching plot. It’s in itself a fascinating and well rendered idea, the source of power and insight in a literal text that renders everything fluid and mobile. By existence it inspires meta reflection, promoting a measure of commentary in the story as a story that works very well. As a novel Vellum is up there with the strongest fantasies I've read recently, and very impressive. The story lacks a real ending, since Vellum is less of a self-contained novel and rather the first half a larger book split in half for publishing purposes (the combined volumes would run close to a thousand pages). I'll be quite interested in finding out where things go from here, and Duncan just shot up on my list of authors to read everything they've written and follow for new publications.
Better than: American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Roughly equivalent to: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin