BRIEF SYNOPSIS: There is a war between angels occurring in throughout the Vellum, the meta-reality that contains our world and countless others. The Book Of All Hours allows its possessor to re-write reality at a whim.
PROS: Unique idea, interesting ideas, some really cool SFnal ideas.
CONS: The narrative is broken up into loosely related chapters, time/reality shifts occur regularly, sometimes within the same paragraph, requires knowledge of myths and legends.
BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for something different, and you happen to be familiar with many myths and legends, Vellum has a lot offer. Otherwise, it can be very difficult and frustrating to read.
I wanted to like Vellum. I wanted to like it a lot. The premise, as stated on the back of the book, is simple. The possessor of The Book Of All Hours has a blueprint for reality and is able to re-write reality as he chooses. Couple this ability with the angels’ (called Unkin) ability to traverse the Vellum (the meta-reality the encompasses Earth and all other possible realities) and whoever posses the book can cause a lot of change. But the book has been lost for a long time and has only recently been found. The discovery sets off a long simmering feud between Heaven and Hell (or order and chaos) over who will use the book to rule the Vellum. This is really cool stuff. And the first 40 or so pages sets all this up. We get a taste of the book, the Vellum, the Unkin’s ability to cross between pages (realties) of the Vellum and a brief glimpse of the main characters and their roles in the conflict. Then Vellum becomes very dense.
The reason has everything to do with the structure of the book. Aside from the first part of the book, the rest is decidedly non-linear. Each chapter can be seen as a vignette in the overall story, focusing on certain characters and their actions. This vignette may take place in the past, present or future. In fact, Duncan can, and does, mix past, present and future together, sometimes within the same paragraph. At the end of each chapter is a section called the Errata. This seemed to me to be sort of a modern day take on the Greek Chorus, offering oblique commentary on the chapter just read, or the story as a whole. All in all, a unique way to tell a story, but very difficult to follow. The main characters reappear throughout the chapters, but usually not under their ‘original’ names. Sometimes its very difficult to figure out who is who. This re-use of characters was reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, The Years Of Rice And Salt, only not as long or as dull.
Duncan also uses a lot of allusions to various myths and legends. Sometimes even re-writing them with a modern take on the stories. This mix also reminded me of John C. Wright’s use of myth in The Mists Of Everness, only Duncan was harder to follow. I suspect I had difficulty because I’m not at all familiar with most of the ancient legends he was referring to. Duncan has gone way back to Sumer, and while I am somewhat familiar with the pantheon of Sumerian deities, I don’t know much about the actual myths from that time. As it turns out, each character can in some way trace their ‘real’ existence back to this time. Again, cool in principle, but difficult to follow the execution like when characters were liable to launch into some baroquely ornate speech steeped in speech patterns from long ago.
That’s not to say there isn’t some good stuff in Vellum. There is. There are several SFnal ideas here, from sentient nanobots to a cool SF world filled with high tech airships and chi guns, to the journey across the Vellum by one of the characters. Unfortunately for me, these ideas take up little of the book, while the focus is on the struggle between the different factions of Unkin in the differing realities of the Vellum. Additionally, the end is also rather abrupt. Even knowing this is the first of a two part series, the end just sort of, well, ends.
If you’re looking for something different, and you happen to be familiar with many myths and legends, Vellum has a lot offer. Otherwise, it can be very difficult and frustrating to read.