Vellum by Hal Duncan
Reviewed by Martin Lewis
Macmillan, London, 2005, 528pp, £17.99, h/b (reviewed in proof), ISBN 1-4050-5208-2
"The Vellum. Like giving it a name makes it any more comprehensible, any more sane. A world under the world – or after it, or beyond it, inside, outside – those ideas don't even fucking apply."
Guy Reynard Carter is searching for The Book of All Days in the bowels of Edinburgh University library. It is a book that plays a key part in his family's folklore, semi-mythical but bound to their name throughout history, and finding it is the sole reason he has enrolled at the university. This is because the Book is the gateway to the Vellum and the Vellum is everything, not just the universe but every universe. Vellum opens with Guy discovering the Book but this is not the simple portal fantasy it initially seems to be. After crossing over Guy fades out of the novel, whilst all the time remaining a presence behind it, and instead his friends – Thomas Messenger, Jack Carter and Joey Perchorin – take centre stage. Or at least certain aspects of them do since Hal Duncan takes a tricksy approach throughout.
Although it first appears to be, the book, just like the Book, is not rigidly structured. It swings back and forth through time, across multiple universes, the narrative built up of brisk crosshatching, layering over and over itself. Duncan is a clever and instinctive writer and he has allowed himself pretty much free rein. This can be more than a little confusing at first but it does mean Vellum always has the capacity to surprise. Just when you think you have a grasp of the main threads of the story the main characters reappear in an entirely new world. Here the central relationships are not only reconfigured but the world itself becomes a critique of a certain type of epic fantasy. Everything becomes explicit; whites are elves, blacks are orcs, Jews are gnomes, fairies are fairies. The heroics of fantasyland become the tragedies of history. Then this new world is forgotten as quickly as it appeared.
The master narrative imposed over all this is the traditional one of Good versus Evil but there is no attempt to say which is which. In fact there is a strong refusenik sentiment in the novel suggesting neither side is worth fighting for. (It is no accident that this view is chiefly voiced by an Irish veteran of World War One.) These two sides are made up of different factions of unkin: angels and demons, separated only by their chosen political philosophy. These unkin are ripped from across the entire spectrum of mythology; Summarian, Greek, Roman, Old Testament. Just like the other characters in the novel they have multiple aspects and the disparate mythologies that produced them shade into one great melange.
At one point, deep in the heart of the novel and deep in the wilds of the Vellum, Reynard Carter, accompanied by an aspect of Messenger, come across a monstrous tell. A tell is a archaeological accretion formed by towns being built on the ruins of towns being built on the ruins of towns over the course of millennia and this is a perfect metaphor for Vellum. Duncan makes no hard choices about what to include in his novel, he simply throws it all in, mixed with the bones of myriad cultures.
The writer this most brings to mind is Neil Gaiman and Vellum will undoubtedly find favour with his many fans. Duncan's publishers certainly think he is capable of similar levels of success. However whilst American Gods is a fat novel this work is even fatter; its ranging, roaming scope is more like the vast sweep of the Sandman comics but without the benefit of being able to tell the wider story episodically.
This is not the one great, insurmountable problem with this book though. That problem is simple: it is not a novel. As is increasingly common these days it is instead half a novel, a single work that has been arbitrarily cleaved in two. There is no need for this and, as I have suggested above, it is not as if Duncan doesn't provide ample opportunity for cuts to be made. Indeed so long and knotted is the book that what is initially a delight to read starts to drag in its final quarter. Once we have struggled through the bewildering, disorienting text with its multiple cul-de-sacs we are rewarded with... nothing. Merely the promise of more to come.
This article first appeared in Vector 243. Back issues of Vector are available from