There were so many concepts and ideas going on in this novel that I don't think I'll be able to sum them up here. In fact, I'm not even going to try. I can't believe this is a first novel; the writing is brilliant and mature and the charaterization is a real delight.
Hal Duncan's novel reads like his entity-like world, the Vellum. The Vellum is everywhere, everywhen and everywhich; it encompasses all of the possible worlds regardless of time and space. The novel is built like the Vellum, and Duncan leads the reader across the Vellum, from world/time/space to the next, building a contiguity through his writing, through objects in the narration, through repetitions in his writing, echoes in the narration; a contiguity more than a continuity between these worlds. At times fantasy, at times science fiction, the novel reads like a ritual, fragmented, part poem, part play, weaving myth, legend and history.
One of the (many!) things which I found interesting was the author's treatment of language. I've been thinking about the role of language and how speculative fiction authors use it for a very long time. The idea of an original language that would be the true language is a recurring one and not just in fantasy and science fiction. The most interesting treatment of this that I had encountered so far was in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash
. There are many similarities between the two novels with regards to this particular point: they both draw upon Sumerian mythology and link it with binary codes or electronic language. Anyway, in Vellum, the Cant is the original, oral language which can be phonetically written with absolute precision including intonation, musical effects. Its phonetic representation perfectly corresponds to the sound of language.
Another interesting element was Duncan's work on primal archetypes and which ties wonderfully with my work on black women. Vellum's characters are struggling against fate and destiny, against what is expected of them, against the primal archetype that resides deep within them, the ancient categories that were made by/for them. Anyway, my work on black women in speculative fiction involved a study of female literary archetypes which are traditionally the Maiden, the Mother and the Wise Woman. The trapping of one of Vellum's female characters in these archetypes leads her to seek freedom in death because once dead, there is no more destiny. She actually writes herself out of history to be rewritten in myth.
I also liked Duncan's idea of plural identities for a single individual. Ancient archetypes evolve and change overtime the same way each time ia myth or story is told, it changes. Thus, Duncan links different myths: Metatron, the voice of God is also Enoch and Enki in Sumerian mythology: "There could be thousands of these vessels, these gravings, all working simultaneously, semi-autonomous but still linked, still part of him" I like this idea of a fragmented identity which is constant making and change.
Lots of food for thought.