There is, perhaps, nothing in the world more infuriating than a book that could just almost be absolutely incredible… but, rather than pull through and be remarkable, manages instead to be awful, painful, and frustrating. Vellum is the first book I’ve ever read that quite fits this bill, truth be told – the occasional novel might be dull with brilliant flashes, or excellent with bad aspects that bring it down, but nothing quite like this. For my first trick, I will attempt a plot summary. I’m wildly torn between saying that there’s just too much to summarize, that the paths and meanderings of the text are too divergent to condense into a few sentences… versus saying that there’s not enough there to make a summary out of – the story too thin, the characters too inconsistent. Still, I’ll try.
There’s a war coming between heaven and hell, and the angels that (brutally) run heaven are trying to make sure that all the unkin (fancy name for more angels) in the world have chosen a side. They don’t really care which side the unkin choose, just that every person is either for heaven or against it. Sounds more or less straightforward; you’ve got 6 or 7 characters fulfilling various roles in this fairly tidy little notion.
Except that then you’ve got the Vellum, too.
The Vellum is this concept of… hmm. I guess the closest analog in sci-fi/fantasy would be the concept of parallel universes – universes in which every scenario, every situation, every development of a character. This is also pretty straightforward, except that then Mr. Duncan introduces the idea of Time as a Three Dimensional Beast – so every few chapters put your characters in a blender, give it a whirl and pour out a new smoothie of relationships, roles fulfilled, setting, genre, and time period. Oh, and eventually there’s some sentient nano-tech. Had to throw that in there.
Now, I still think Vellum could have worked out, in spite of the time- and role-bending. Ducan has some seriously awesome ideas… classic fantasy transposed over a modern world, alternate histories for both world wars, hard cyberpunk and Gaijin Ninjas, ancient Sumerian; the list really just goes on and on. But instead of just writing the damn novel, the author chose to break everything up into third- and half-page chunks, mixing his ideas, his time periods, metaphors… so that instead of the smooth, bendable expanse of vellum that he preaches, you’ve basically got a wadded up, crinkled piece of paper. I literally had to sit down and force myself to read, because there was zero in the way of flow or continuity. You couldn’t keep a handle on the characters long enough to get attached to them or know them. Say you liked one of his worlds and ideas? Too bad! It’s gone before you could do more than start to form a vague inkling of appreciation.
I could go on with the ranting, but I’ll desist before I get incoherent in my frustration. The bottom line? Reading Vellum was thoroughly infuriating and unenjoyable… and then just to ice the cake there’s no end, no winding down – the book just stops, presumably so that the sequel (Ink) can pick up. Too bad that I won’t be picking it up.