Ink - Hal Duncan
Hal Duncan's debut, Vellum, was undoubtedly the best book I read last year, by quite some margin, so it was with great glee that I picked up the sequel (out last Friday in the UK, Feb 27 in the US). The setting is - sort of - 2037, twenty years after the Evenfall, when the Vellum - the fabric of the universe - became polluted with the bitmites, nanotech from the Underworld. The universes have all fragmented and blended together, with the occasional pocket of fascistic order set up by the scattered angels of the Covenant, and our seven protagonists are dead or dispersed. Not only this, but something nasty has happened to the twentieth century - the new and terrible doctrine of Futurism has usurped both the Nazis and the Communists, and is worse than either; all sides are still hunting for the Book of All Hours as the power that might fix it all.
If you haven't read Vellum then Ink is not a good place to start, as you won't have the first clue what's going on - the story may be slightly more linear, but the style is the same, with the fractured narrative leaping from one universe to the next and switching between different incarnations of the same character. Jack Flash is back, avatar of fire, as is his WW1-hero counterpart Mad Jack Carter, but Anna, Puck and Seamus are largely sidelined in favour of expanding the characters/archetypes of Joey - the dark, nihilistic traitor - and Guy Reynard, the fox, the king of thieves. I hadn't been too keen on either of these in the first book, so it was great to see them fleshed out more.
Maybe because I knew what to expect this time, I didn't feel quite as much gobsmacked awe as I did reading Vellum - while the writing is utterly gorgeous, there wasn't anything to quite match, say, Inanna's journey to the Underworld in the original. It's also a bit slower to get started; the earlier scenes of the Harlequin play near the start of the book were a struggle to get through, though they did pick up later. Still, this is a work of twisted genius that very nearly matches Vellum for quality. I previously made comparisons between Duncan's work and Joanna Russ, William Burroughs and Lord Dunsany, but really, there's nothing else out there quite like this (none of them had exploding airships, for a start). An early candidate for the best book of 2007.