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Vellum: The Book Of All Hours
Hal Duncan
Pan paperback £7.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

"A burning map. Every epic... should start with a burning map," says a character at the start of Hal Duncan's Vellum. Perhaps I'm reading too much into that comment, but it's tempting to see it as a call for the destruction of that most familiar epic-fantasy accessory. Certainly it serves as a warning that this unmapped and perhaps unmappable (in the conventional sense) fantasy does not play by the rules (at least, not by those rules).

We begin straightforwardly enough, with Reynard Carter, a student at university in Glasgow. We meet his close friends, Jack Carter (no relation), Joey Pechorin, and Jack's lover, Thomas Messenger. And we discover why Reynard chose that particular university - not for anything so prosaic as the course or the night life, but because he knows it to be the location of the fabled 'Book Of All Hours'. There is some disagreement over the precise nature of the Book - maybe it's God's 'ultimate instruction manual' for living, or the book from which He will read at the Last Judgement - but, whichever, Reynard is determined to have it for himself. He discovers the Book to be something else entirely: an atlas whose first page shows its reader's immediate surroundings, and whose subsequent maps are drawn to progressively larger scales, revealing the familiar (though subtly altered) world to be one small part of a far larger reality: the Vellum. Reynard resolves to follow the maps in the Book for as far as he can. And the rest of Vellum will chronicle Reynard's travels on 'the road of all dust', yes?

Not quite. Chapter one takes an unexpected jump into a future America, where a girl named Phreedom Messenger is searching for her brother Thomas - who died during the prologue. One of him died, anyway. To explain: the beings we have known as angels, demons and gods are in fact 'unkin', once human, but now players on the wider stage of the Vellum, able to travel through its worlds, where time is rather more fluid. A war is brewing between two groups of unkin, the Covenant and the Sovereigns. Metatron, leader of the Covenant, seeks to gather rogue unkin to fight in this war; which is bad news for those unkin who don't want to take sides - unkin like the Messenger siblings...

To summarise the plot of this highly complex work much further would be to undermine the very way Vellum works. The most striking thing about the story is the way it is told - or, rather, shown; Duncan flits back and forth between different worlds and time periods, with different versions of the same characters encountered in each. Thus, for example, we meet Thomas in the/ a present and the/ a future, but also as Tommy in the trenches of the Great War, and as the god Tammuz/ Dumuzi of Sumerian myth (and as other incarnations besides). The plot emerges indirectly from all these different threads; Duncan provides clues, but you have to do most of the work yourself - and, I must admit, I didn't follow all of it.

Yet I don't feel in any way short-changed by this. I only object to being puzzled by a story if I feel the author is showing off for the sake of it, and I don't get that feeling with Vellum. There's an air of great craft and precision about this book, as though it has been carefully constructed; and not from flat-pack kits with 'The Tough Guide To Fantasyland' as a manual, either, but from lovingly-wrought pieces of language (the author's joy for words shines throughout the book). There's also a sense that the complete story of Vellum can only be seen from above, as it were; that is, you have to hold it all in your head at once to understand it fully. I couldn't manage to do that, but I'm sure it's all there for those who can (or it will be once the companion volume, Ink, is published), which is why I don't want to criticise Duncan just because I didn't understand everything in his novel.

Criticising anything in Vellum is quite difficult, precisely because the work so much 'of a piece'. Take the characterisation, for instance: it seems clear that Duncan intends each character to be a composite; as a scholar wonders when considering myths, "perhaps the true Dumuzi is not to be found in any one version, but between them, in the transformations." So, if each character should be considered as the sum total of all the versions of him or her found in Vellum, is it even worth asking whether an individual version is well-rounded? And what does 'well-rounded' mean in these circumstances? Analogous arguments could be made about the writing, the plotting of individual strands, and so on: how much does the success (or otherwise) of small parts of Vellum matter if the important thing is the book as a whole?

All of which leads me to give that hoary old recommendation: read the novel for yourself and make up your own mind. I know this is something of a cop-out, but there is much to enjoy in Vellum regardless. There are some wonderful fantasy notions, from the various fusions of magic and technology to the many different worlds Duncan depicts (the sequence where multiple versions of Thomas are being chased and he ends up fleeing a crowd of pursuers from different realities is particularly effective, to give one example). Vellum also has much to say about war, and especially about how myths grow and stories shape our world. It is very much a fantasy for the present day, illuminating the random, contradictory nature of reality ("You can't tell the full story, the complete story, and hope to be consistent," comments one character) whilst acknowledging the key role that stories play in human existence. And no, it's not a book that everyone will like - but it is one that I would recommend everyone to read.
Vellum

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