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Once, in the depths of prehistory, they were human. But in a moment of brutal transfiguration, they became Unkin - beings who possess the power to alter reality by accessing the Vellum: the realm of eternity underneath the skin of the world, underneath every reality, containing every possibility, every paradox, every heaven and hell. The Vellum became a battleground where forces of order and chaos fought across time and space. The ultimate weapon in that bloody war spanning history and myth, dreams and memory, was The Book of All Hours, a legendary tome within which the blueprint for all of reality is inscribed - a volume long lost amid the infinite folds of the Vellum.
Vellum is the first half of an epic story cycle with the overall title of The Book of All Hours, as well as the name given to the substrate of reality within the multiverse of the book upon which all of reality is written. All possibilities coexist within the Vellum - it is a geological complex of the past, the present and the future; of the parallel realities; of realized and unrealized possibilities; of entire worlds built upon the bones of dead stories and unrealized decisions. This metaphysical complexity is reflected in the literary complexity of the stories the author Hal Duncan has created.
In a segment of this multiverse not unlike our own world, a race of post-humans who call themselves "Unkin" have the ability to manipulate reality, the Vellum itself, through the concise and powerful language called "the Cant" - the language that shaped reality itself on the surface of the Vellum. Originally the Unkin used their ability to lord it over mere mortals - they were the gods, the angels, the demons of our earliest mythologies. Then, several thousand years ago a republican faction led by Metatron (formerly the human Enoch) deposed the most powerful of the Sovereigns proclaiming themselves gods and dedicated themselves to bringing order to the world. But they did not win an outright victory, and for millennia they have been engaged in a heavenly cold war.
As Vellum opens, that war is heating up and those Unkin who have tried to remain unaligned to either the Sovereigns or the Covenant are being forcibly recruited by one side or the other. Vellum is primarily concerned with the experiences of three of these unaligned Unkin - Phreedom Messenger, her brother Thomas, and their friend and mentor Seamus Finnan - as they try to evade the recruiting sergeants of Metatron's Covenant. Thomas and Phreedom try to hide in the Vellum by obscuring their gravings - the unique identifying mark carved to the deepest layer on the soul and body of every Unkin, during the moment in their life when they touch the Vellum beneath reality and transform forever from human to Unkin. Thomas is hunted down and killed in one reality after another, Seamus is captured and... interrogated. Phreedom manages to make a deal with Metatron that leads to the death of another unaligned, ancient, Unkin. But that death has unexpected repercussions...
Their story could have been told as a linear narrative, but that would have been a denial of the metaphysical premises on which the entire story cycle is based. Vellum abandons linearity in favor of fragmented narratives written in multiple perspectives, moving freely between different times, places and even realities. In addition, Hal Duncan moves equally freely between different genres, presenting us variously with adaptations of real-world mythology, high fantasy, realism, cyber- and psycho-steampunk, and even stream-of-consciousness. And he does all this in such a way that he imbues his characters with a vertigo-inducing depth. Thus Thomas is Tammuz is Dumuzi is the dying god, the archetypal victim; and all the stories of his death speak of one and the same event. Similarly by the end of this first volume it is beginning to appear that Seamus is Lucifer is Prometheus, punished by the gods for bringing enlightenment to humankind.
The two volumes that make up The Book of All Hours (Vellum and Ink) each consist of two books. Those four parts reflect respectively afternoon/summer, evening/autumn, night/winter and morning/spring. In Vellum each book consists of seven chapters (the seven days of the week?). Hal Duncan is clearly an author who cares about the words as much as about the story, and one is left with a sense that every word has been carefully selected and fitted into place in the grand edifice. Again, this reflects an aspect of the universe he is trying to create - a universe in which there exists a language so straightforward, so concise, so direct and so immediate that it can alter reality itself.
The fact that Vellum is only the first half of a single work is all too obvious by the end of the volume. There are all sorts of loose ends floating around, a mishmash of timey-wimey complexity that the second volume, Ink, stitches back together.
The second half of the story, Ink, takes place after Metatron's release of his bitmites - hybrids born from a union between nanotechnology and the engraved souls of the dead - where everything has changed. Trying to create the worlds of human imagination, the bitmites have torn reality apart in the Evenfall and cast the shade of Hinter over the entire Vellum. Small enclaves of civilization, ruled by scattered Unkin, remain, stuck in an eternal present - in these barren lands, Reynard's little troupe of actors stages a mystery play for a duke of hell; in a different fold of the Vellum the futurist movement has given the rivaling fascists a run for their money as Jack enlists his brother, master thief Reinhardt von Strann, to steal a magical artifact that is supposed to help him rewrite the course of history; and an eternity later, a small squad of inter-dimensional adventurers, whom we got to know, in other lives, as the Troupe D'Reynard, prepare for their ultimate mission: to secure the final draft of The Book of All Hours and keep the rogue angels from creating their god of wrath from its pages. The final battle takes place in 1929, in a city that was once known as Sodom, about to be destroyed yet again. But this time, Mad Jack Carter is determined that even if he can't save the people of Sodom, he will find the one reality, the one possibility where one man is allowed to live: Tammuz, Thomas Messenger, the eternal victim of the ever-raging war.
Ink shares all the defining features of the first book - the abundance of mythical and pop-cultural allusions, the parallel histories, the Jack Flash pulp action, the constant, tumbling ride through multiple worlds, most of them only glimpsed at and yet so rich that it feels that, beyond the pages of the book, they're fully realized. Despite its exuberance, Ink goes easier than Vellum on the whole kaleidoscopic-reality thing - the prologue provides an account of "the story so far", which explains some of the more enigmatic elements of the first volume, and in general the narrative is much more linear - if Vellum spread out the puzzle pieces, Ink fits them back together.
The Book of All Hours explores a number of concepts regarding the relationship of history and the individual with its capacity for change, joy and suffering. In its course, Ink compresses the whole mythology of The Book of All Hours more and more to the personal level, until, in the epilogue, we come to realize that all the struggling against an insufferable history of violence boils down to the confrontation of a single human being with an arbitrary death. Consequently, in the end, "making it right" is less about fighting empires and angels and rewriting history, but about saving Thomas Messenger. Without giving away too much, it can be said that one of the last subchapter-titles within the book frames this quest with bittersweet irony... and bittersweet, as is suggested at one point in Ink, is probably a more fitting description for the dialectical metaphysics of knowledge than good and evil.
In the end, The Book of All Hours is a furious lament, a work of love and anger. It's very much about reality; not only in a metaphorical sense, but in its address of very real human experiences. Within the pages of Vellum and Ink, we are reminded that there's something out there that is dwarfing the richness, the reality, the terror and the complexity of whole works of literary construction - the world, and human life.
- Anachronic Order: made of this trope. a good idea for a project would be to cut up both books and try to fit the pages into chronological order. Have fun.
- Bury Your Gays: Puck, (Thomas Messenger), is murdered early on in the first book, leaving behind his lover Jack... and dies again and again across the multiverse. Puck's treatment is a harsh criticism of this trope from Duncan (as well as upon real-world anti-gay violence, specifically the murder of Matthew Shepard), who is very outspoken about gay rights – so, in the end, They Do. Ultimately, the entire duology is about the love these two men have for each other and the struggle to find the one fold of the Vellum where Thomas lives. And if nobody could find it, they would make it.
- Deus Sex Machina: especially in the second book, Ink. For some of the folds of reality in the Vellum, tantric sex apparently makes it easier to travel between the various alternate realities, and in these folds there also exists several kinds of technology fueled by using "orgone energy" as a power source (a real life concept that, sadly, doesn't actually exist).
- The End of the World as We Know It: Metatron seriously miscalculated – mixing AI nanotechnology with the Cant, which combines with all the gravings of long-dead Unkin in the wake of Phreedom's quick trip to the tattoo parlor, and using it to try and torture who is essentailly Prometheus? Here comes Evenfall, and the Hinter.
- Fictional Document: the titular Book of All Hours itself. came into existence in many different ways within all the folds of reality that exist in the Vellum
- God Guise: The Unkin.
- Language of Magic: the Cant itself. The metaphysical language so precise, so intricate, that "it can catch an atom in the interference patterns of a sound, snatch the energy thrown off as waste, and use it as a weapon". Snatching the heat out of the world to reshape reality and the Vellum. At one point in the far distant futurepast, the war between the rival Unkin factions used the Cant so much that the world was in the midst of a deep ice age. An excellent example where words truly can cause physical effects.
- Mind Screw: hoo boy does it ever. where to begin... a multi-layered universe functioning on dimensional variables with recurring archetypes across millennia acting as the main characters, one of the main characters killing his younger self (at the point when said younger self was supposed to kill the older self) because he was crying (Stable Time Loop seems to apply), and the absolute deconstruction of all levels of reality to a point where even the guy who walked across eternity can't piece it back together. Awesomeness and pan-cultural symbolism aside, you kinda have to read it twice. Because Anachronic Order Mind Screw. Or more than twice... Have fun.
- Our Monsters Are Different: the Unkin. they have been our angels, our demons, our Gods in the mythologies the world over. Due to the fact that they are/were, in origin, humans that touched the Vellum through a moment of artistic/emotional/intellectual epiphany, why do you think all those characters in the deepest stories of mankind acted so... human? And its not so much ascending as it is descending and touching the Vellum underneath reality. also the point of why there is the war between the Covenant and the Sovereigns - people fighting over power, politics, greed, ambition, and in some cases horrified that there is no judeo-christian God: if there's no God, then we'll build our own idea of Heaven, a tiny outpost in the vast harsh wilderness that is the eternity of the Vellum.
- Shell-Shocked Veteran: Depending on which reality variant or which character iteration you're looking at, practically ALL the main characters are this at different points. Particularly Seamus/Prometheus (who is this in EVERY reality (unfortunately its a core staple of his archetype) and Jack Carter (in the iterations where he plays The Captain). Phreedom would have been this except she chose the Screw Destiny route and went AWOL.
- Timey-Wimey Ball: doesn't even try to claim to be otherwise. It's such a mishmash of pocket universes, alternate universes, and paradox that causality can't even be seen with a telescope on a good day. Essentially - think of the universe as a huge piece of vellum on which reality has been written. Then crumple it up. Most characters make such a habit of going not just back and forth in time but also sideways, “up”, and down into the buried fossilized remains of previous overwritten realities as well.
- They Do: In a peculiar variation, Jack Flash/Carter and Puck/Thomas Messenger really do finally get to be together (without either one being brutally murdered by the other) ... sorta. Considering how by the end of Ink, reality in the Vellum has been re-written so many times that not even Reynard/Guy/Fox could put the thing back together', the fact that they're present in any shape or form is impressive to say the least (particularly after what happened to Seamus). In any case, they get things their way eventually, in whatever variant of reality that still includes them. If you would like directions on the various interpretations of the situation, you'll find Mind Screw on your right, and you can follow that straight down until you hit Go Mad from the Revelation (after which your confusion will no longer be a problem).
- Universal Adaptor Cast: does this extensively. This is an interesting case, because each character is the living embodiment of an archetype superimposed upon the multiple realities. By the second book, where reality has degenerated into isolated wells of time and space in the Vellum, and the characters move from one reality well to another, they all become Dangerously Genre Savvy, having absolutely no qualms about screwing all possible realities to their advantage. This results in them routinely sitting around a table and leafing through the "script" for the next reality, deciding who is going to play what.