Diana's Reviews > The Last Page

The Last Page by Anthony Huso
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Aug 28, 2010

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bookshelves: fantasy

Summary: An inventive, intriguing, and challenging first fantasy novel, but overly attention-seeking language mars the reader's reading comprehension and narrative flow.

My review:

The Last Page, published in 2010, is an inventive, intriguing, and challenging first fantasy novel by Anthony Huso. I read a hardcover copy that was provided to Dreams & Speculation by the publisher.

There are two protagonists in this novel, Caliph Howl, a young nobleman, heir to the throne of the Duchy of Stonehold, and his love interest, Sena Iilool, who we soon learn is a member of the Shradnae Sisterhood, a witchocracy resembling the Aes Sedai of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, but darker and sexier.

We first meet Caliph as a student at Desdae High College, studying economics, diplomacy, and holomorphy, which is the standard-practice magic art involving mathematics, symbols, and blood. At the beginning of this book I couldn’t help noticing the parallels with Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. In both books a good part of the action takes place in an ancient university setting full of eccentric professors, a curriculum that blends science and magic, venerable ritual, infractions of codes of conduct, and, of course, strangely elaborate old buildings full of passageways and nooks. Both authors share an ear for the pleasures and trials of campus social life, writing energetic dialogue between friends, enemies, and lovers.

Caliph’s college years are but a rounding of his education, before he reluctantly assumes his responsibilities as King. Sena, whose point of view is interwoven with Caliph’s, is absorbed in pursuing her renegade interest in the Cisrym Ta, a mysterious tome of great power, and the source of the novel’s title. The parallel plots involve Caliph’s political challenges, and Sena’s quest to unlock and master the tome.

The most striking aspect of The Last Page is the language. I found myself frequently consulting a dictionary to check the meaning of words that were invented (“chemiostatic”, “holomorph”), obscure (“cicatrix”, “horripilated”), and slightly modified (“myriapede”, “ommatophorous”.) That incomplete sample was taken from chapters 5 and 6, and such vocabulary abounds throughout the book. While linguistically resonant vocabulary is a key ingredient in fantasy literature, the interpolation of obscure and unusually deployed words (for instance, “gharial teeth”) meant that my flow of reading comprehension was frequently interrupted.

Did you know that an ommatophore is a tentacle with an eye on the end?

Thanks to a dictionary, I learned that a gharial is a kind of crocodile, and it’s used here as an adjective. Yes, “gharial” is interesting for its similarity to “ghastly”, but what’s wrong with “crocodile teeth”? While language and careful word choice have a profound impact in creating setting, mood, and character (see, for example, the writing of Jack Vance,) there was too much strange vocabulary that interfered with comprehension.

Proper names and phrases embellished with strange diacritical marks bedevil the reader. A pronunciation guide can be consulted at the back of the book, but in the course of reading, I rarely recalled that the “o” with a dot underneath plus a squiggle on the top-right sounded rather like a German “ü”, a letter form with which most of us are familiar. While special vowel and consonant forms connect the present world with a linguistically distant past, I felt the practice had an intrusive cleverness about it, an author calling attention to himself, rather than facilitating the narrative through judiciously researched linguistic invention. Why not use Cyrillic letters, to really have some fun at the ordinary English reader’s expense? I think there are more consonant ways to achieve the desired effect (pun intended.)

The best parts of The Last Page are the encounters between the protagonists and the emergent chthonic beings and forces, magical and demonic. (Chthonic: pertaining to the deities and spirits of the underworld.) The author’s powers of invention and evocative language don’t deter the drama, and I was fascinated with the strangeness yet tickled by the whiff of plausibility, and that quality, I think, is the gold standard for fantasy writing.

The descriptions of Sena’s and Caliph’s travels were slow and tangential to the plot, but this is not a novel about journeys. I was disappointed with the quality of the maps; they are aesthetically utilitarian, and do not indicate many geographical locations of interest. Despite my occasional frustration that the maps did not cover the entire realm, that lack is finally of small consequence.

The characters are nicely drawn and developed, but this is not a character-driven novel. Caliph and Sena’s sexuality is important to the narrative, and is often described from Sena’s point of view. As I was reading I often felt that I wasn’t finding out who Caliph and Sena really are. Complexity of characters usually takes the form of conflicts and contradictions that are played out, influencing outcomes. While Caliph and Sena have social anxieties to cope with, they each pursue their goals in more or less straightforward heroic fashion. As often happens in such novels, secondary characters can threaten to become more interesting; for instance, I was intrigued to decipher the ambiguous motives of Zane Vhortghast, head of Caliph’s intelligence services.

I infer that the presence of zeppelins, trains, and war machines are solid indicators of the popular steampunk genre. With the technical, odiferous descriptions of the City of Isca’s elaborate infrastructures for water, sewage, lighting, and transportation, and the city’s social milieux, there is a lot of dark urban flavor.

Caliph’s and Sena’s parallel narrative climaxes (pun intended) are compelling reading, if dense and sometimes purple prose. Schematically, the descriptions are clear, and the action comprehensible, but often the force of the style often worked against my ability to form an inner image and float on the narrative. I want to lose myself in the story, but I had the sense that I wasn’t “getting it.” The skies were a maggoty, phantasmagorical, roiling texture, and the zeppelins were bristling behemoths, and the shadows were menacing, but I couldn’t feel the scene, because I was too caught up in the words and clever metaphors. That, I think, is the most difficult and rare nugget in the art of writing. Don’t get me wrong: the language is well-crafted, even impressive, but for me, the clever metaphors were amusing, overused, and attention-seeking.

“Caliph watched the smile crumble, piling up at the bottom of the ambassador’s face as a reconstituted frown. It felt good to toss a pebble into Amphungtal’s glassy disdain and see the angry ripples spread out under his face.”

If you are content to ignore or guess at unknown words, if you have a particular love for inventive metaphor and dark urban fantasy, you will enjoy The Last Page. There is a lot about the created world that the reader will still not comprehend at the end of the book. A companion novel, Black Bottle, is to be published in 2011. Huso is a video game designer.

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Reading Progress

August 28, 2010 – Shelved
September 14, 2010 – Started Reading
September 14, 2010 – Shelved as: fantasy
September 17, 2010 –
page 47
10.9% "Excellent so far! Great setting, mood, mystery. Many parallels with Name of the Wind, interesting to contrast Huso's and Rothfuss' approach."
September 23, 2010 –
page 106
24.59% "Intricate, imaginative language, steam-punk + sorcery."
September 26, 2010 –
page 229
53.13% "Lots of invented and obscure vocabulary, lots of metaphorical description, sometimes a bit too much of it detracts from the storytelling."
September 30, 2010 –
page 355
September 30, 2010 – Finished Reading

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