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REVIEWS: CFQ May/June 2006

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Vellum: The Book of All Hours 1
Hal Duncan
Del Rey (480 p)
$14.95 ISBN: 0345487311/978-0-345-48731-5
(US Edition: April 2006)

book cover Vellum is like nothing you've ever read before. Vellum is like everything you've ever read before. Readers looking for a simple linear story should look elsewhere, but for those who want to stimulate their brains -- jack in and rejoice. The Vellum is "the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could be written." The unkin, post-humans who are also ancient mythological archetypes, can re-write reality using the Cant. As one character says "Where the Cant is involved...[you] can't tell the full story, the complete story, and hope to be consistent. Best you can hope for is...coherent and comprehensive." The narrative, once past an introductory section in which a young man finds the legendary The Book of All Hours, turns to often contradictory multiple perspectives and overlappings of personae, places, and times reflecting the alternative realities and the realities on top of realities of the Vellum. The unkin are being swept up or swept away in preparation for a final showdown between the Covenant (which one might call the forces of Heaven but one would be wrong) and the Sovereigns (less-defined individual megalomaniacs with their own adherents). Three rogue unkin -- Seamus Finnan, Phreedom Messenger, and her brother Thomas Messenger (each have a multitude of names and existences) are attempting to escape by hiding in the Vellum. The Cant was once writ with ink, ritual, and magic but in the (sometimes) near-future setting it is programming, VR, AI, nano-, and other tech. Vellum is something like a novel version of metaphysical post-punk rock with political overtones. It takes sf/f back to its roots while flinging it into the future. And, like any punk rocker, Duncan takes the sort of risks that can result in either brilliant riffs or passing out in a puddle of puke but, overall brings it all off -- at least halfway. At the end of Vellum you've only reached an intermission because the rest of the story, told in Ink: The Book of All Hours 2, is yet to come -- next year.

Visionary In Residence: Stories
Bruce Sterling
Thunder's Mouth (224 p)
$15.95 ISBN: 1560258411
(March 12, 2006)

book cover Few writers can take an idea, twist it with wit, and come up come up with an entertaining and thought-provoking story as well as Sterling can. The thirteen stories in his new collection are just more proof. "Junk DNA" (with Rudy Rucker) is immersed in science, has solid characterization, and captures the era of dot-com boom and bust with a giggle. "The Scab's Progress" (co-written with Paul Di Filippo), on the other hand, is full of clever future-tech but lacking in characters. It is, though, a lot of fun and Sterling's knack for putting the fun back into science fiction -- as with "Luciferase" in which a spider and a firefly discuss their romances or lack thereof -- is welcomed. But he's in top form when taking a single idea -- like a cell phone that acts as a universal translator in "In Paradise" -- and letting humans interact with it or taking an unusual perspective -- as in "Code" in which a male programming geek hacks the male/female system -- and running with it.

The Sword of Straw
Amanda Hemingway
Del Rey (336 p)
$12.95 ISBN: 0345460804
(US Edition March 28, 2006)

book cover Whether you start with the first of this trilogy, The Greenstone Grail, or volume two, The Sword of Straw, you'll find yourself on a delightful quest. Nathan Ward, now age 13, can visit other worlds in his dreams. Having gained the Grail in his previous adventure, he must find a murderous sword in his second. Part of the series' charm lies in the author's references to genre and obvious use of ideas from both contemporary and traditional fantasy, but she also provides winning, multi-dimensional characters. Nathan is not only dealing with bad guys and magic swords, he's falling in love for the first time with a princess who can hold her own with any hero. His friend, Hazel Bagot, is dealing with pubescent yearnings herself and mucking about with witchcraft in order to attract the boy of her dreams. Nathan's "uncle," Bartlemy Goodman, possesses a Gift that gives him near-immortality and sorcerous powers, but he prefers to use it achieving culinary perfection. Annie, Nathan's practical bookseller mother, still keeps the secret of his supernatural father from her son, even as she accepts Nathan is no longer a child that she must go while still being there "to wash the demonspit off his clothes." It will take, of course, the final book to sort all the secrets out.