Author: Hal Duncan
615 pages • £17.99
Some novels aren't for the fainthearted. They throw the storytelling rulebook out the window, mess with your concept of linear time, and force you to look at the world from a different perspective. Admittedly, this often means you’ll end up either adoring every word or hurling them angrily across the room, but this kind of ground-breaking fiction is vital. And there are few authors who kick down the boundaries as effectively as the defiantly unique Scottish writer Hal Duncan.
If most “traditional” fantasy novels are the equivalent of eating comfort food while wearing a warm pair of slippers, Duncan’s incendiary blend of experimental fantasy and free-form sci-fi is a whip-cracking, booty-shaking, drunken three-day bender. At the end of it your head might hurt, you might not remember all the people you’ve met, but you’ll be glad you’ve taken the trip, as Duncan’s fantasy world is a multi-layered, reality-warping view of history, myth and magic that forcibly drags the genre into brave new territory.
Certainly, anyone who found 2005’s Vellum (the first part of the Book of All Hours series) tricky to approach should consider themselves warned, as Duncan has set his sights even higher this time round. Once again featuring a dizzyingly non-linear approach and a plot that defies rational analysis, Ink picks up the saga 20 years after the events of book one, as the remixed version of the battle between Heaven and Hell has gone very, very wrong. Reality has been devastated by a swarm of nanomachines, and as the various survivors of the “Evenfall” shelter together in bizarre havens to ride out the storm, we meet a multitude of versions of characters whom we’ve already met in Vellum.
From anarchist hero Jack Flash battling Futurists in Kentigern, to a group of actors mounting a very dangerous play, Ink bounces between multiple timelines and universes, but slowly it becomes clear that everything revolves around the mysterious Book of All Hours – a volume containing the blueprints of reality itself. Some of the main players in Vellum make unexpected reappearances, and the novel builds towards a titanic showdown in the Middle East – but it’s less about the pyrotechnic action, and more about the struggles of the characters to survive in a world that simply refuses to make sense.
As with Vellum, it’s a book designed to be felt rather than described, and Duncan’s free-for-all prose style is the definition of the phrase “difficult read”. And yet, there are concepts and ideas in Ink that you won’t find anywhere else. Playing like a demonic collaboration between James Joyce, Michael Moorcock and Grant Morrison, it’s a book that takes a left field look at the history of the 20th century, asks provocative questions about the power of stories and what we look for in our gods, but never forgets to back up its themes with lashings of humour, lurid sex and ultraviolence.
The sheer level of invention in Ink is boggling, and if there’s anything working against Duncan’s approach, it’s that at times his ultra-experimental style teeters on the edge of self-indulgence, while Ink doesn’t always reach the same levels of emotional resonance as Vellum. He’s an acquired taste you’ll love or loathe, but it’s hard to think of another writer who’s pulled off such an ambitious series, let alone with his first two novels. The limits of fantasy have been officially pushed back, and for those who can keep up with Duncan’s full-tilt-boogie style, The Book of All Hours is a ride that’s more than worth taking.