Hal Duncan Ink: The Book of All Hours

ISBN 13: 9780330438384

Ink: The Book of All Hours

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9780330438384: Ink: The Book of All Hours

With his stunning debut novel, Vellum, Hal Duncan shattered the boundaries between genres. Fantasy, or science fiction, Vellum shocked with the boldness of its ideas, seduced with the sensual beauty of its prose, and astonished with its imaginative sweep. Now Duncan returns with another epic tour de force that surpasses all expectations.

INK: The Book of All Hours

Once, in the depths of prehistory, they were human. But in a moment of brutal transfiguration, they became unkin, beings who possessed the power to alter reality by accessing the Vellum: a realm of eternity containing every possibility, every paradox, every heaven . . . and every hell. The Vellum became a battleground where forces of order and chaos fought across time and space. The ultimate weapon in that bloody war spanning through history and myth, dreams and memory, was The Book of All Hours, a legendary tome within which the blueprint for all reality is inscribed, a volume long lost amid the infinite folds of the Vellum.

Until, in 2017, it was found by Reynard Carter, a young man with the blood of unkin in his veins.

Until Phreedom Messenger and her brother, Thomas, were swept up in an archetypal dance of death and rebirth.

Until a hermit named Seamus Finnan found the courage to re-forge his broken soul, and a self-proclaimed angel called Metatron unleashed a plague of AI bitmites.

Now, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, several survivors search desperately for the remnants of themselves scattered across the Vellum like torn pages, determined to use the blood of the unkin to rewrite The Book of All Hours, and to forge a new destiny for themselves and all humanity. Reality will never be the same.

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About the Author:

Hal Duncan is the author of Vellum, which was a finalist for both the William H. Crawford Award and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He is a member of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle. He lives in the West End of Glasgow.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

Harlequin In Hell

A tantric tarantula.

Doom. That one’s for King Finn, I think as the smoked-glass windows of the brown-brick 1960s monster of a multistory shatter in a bloom of black smoke and green flame, and I almost flinch—but only almost—as the shock wave blasts across my back, billowing my armored longcoat out in front of me. The reflection in the mirror steel of the Zippo, inscribed with the circle-A of Anarchy, is a peachy sight in the rush-hour night of winter Kentigern, my very own fireworks display. The building was asking for it anyway, I reckon; the only thing the fascists do worse than politics is architecture, and in the Little Black Book of Jack Flash tattooed on my skin, well, bad taste is a fine reason for revolution. I click the lighter open, snik it lit and suck a hash cheroot into a fwoosh of life, then clunk the silvery lighter shut and turn, wait.

One elephant. Two elephants. Three elephants.

Doom.

And that’s for Anaesthesia.

Militiamen, their chakras acrackle with the blue-green fire of orgone-fusion chain reactions, come streaming from the building, fleeing, jostling through doorways, diving from windows. I watch them from my magic circle of melted tarmac, square in the center of a business-district crossroads where traffic signals cycle red and green and orange, like lights on a cheap mobile disco. Beams of headlights scythe the halogen-orange sky as aircars veer and buck to avoid me, spinning like ice skaters on their float-rays and crumping into sandstone and brick, Victorian, Georgian, Modern edifices shedding chips, sparks, shards and fireballs. Horns blare like it’s the End of Days and Gabriel has a backing section. Ornithopters rise from the rooftop landing pad of Pitt Street pigyard, unbalanced by the panicked blackshirts clinging to their landing gear and to each other, dangling like daisy chains. I flick the flap of my longcoat back and draw my Curzon-Youngblood Mark I chi-gun—favored weapon of the gaijin ninjas—and slowly, methodically, start to pick them off.

Call it kundalini, call it chi, or call it orgone energy. Call it the mystic life force of the universe, if you want. Me, I leave it to the Cavors and the Reichs to do the blackboard metamaths and pop parapsychology. All I know is that I got the original sex pistol in my hand, charged with the full-on power of all the sex-death lust-terror that just reeks in every fiber of my body. Sex is a weapon, and tonight, baby, I’m hornier than a whore in heat. Hell, you can smell my aura even over the ozone and jism stinkbomb that used to be Pitt Street Militia Station.

A blackshirt falls at my feet, doubled over in an agony of ecstasy and lost in his own moans and gasps, his deepest dread desires unleashed. All around me, in the desperate frenzy of the street, the fascists shed their inhibitions as they strip, insane with lust and clutching at themselves, each other, anything. I like to think I’ve given the phrase orgy of violence a whole new meaning.

“Fuck me,” the voice at my feet says. “Suck me.”

The blackshirt wraps himself around my leg, humping it like a dog, and for a second I’m tempted, I admit—I do like a man in uniform—but, baby, I just got here and I need to get my socks on, not my rocks off, cause the Fox is waiting for me. I peel the blackshirt gently from my leg and point him at another partner, smile benevolently as they start to go at it like bonobos. All around, up Pitt Street and along the stretch of Bath Street, aircars are jammed and crammed, and passersby are scrambling out of them, running from the naked madmen. I smile: I do like a man in uniform, but I like him out of uniform even more.

Sir, yes, sir. I got Shiva on one side, Shakti on the other. I’m a tantric tarantula with a bite of bliss, and there’s no cure for the karma I got loaded in my gun. I step back from the carnal carnage, mutter a quick prayer to Kali, holster my Curzon-Youngblood in its leather sheath, and turn, coat furling smoke around me in chaotic involutions.

Jack Flash is back. How’s that? I hear you ask. OK, my friends . . .

Flashback:

Twenty Years Wide

Blood dust billows, charcoal black and ash white in the Hinter, swirls of fuzz and hiss, like all the TV sets in the world have spilled their white noise out into the air. The landscape is a rough shape in the storm of bitmites, a corpse riddled with maggots, buried in bluebottles, only here and there a form emerging from the swarming gray: angel armor on disrupters like the skulls of enemies on sticks; charred gods hanging from gibbets; gryphons crunching on the bones of demons; a sylph.

Metaphysiqued in sulcate flesh of unskinned musculature and tendons like an anatomical model, golden sun for one eye, silver moon for the other, it gazes impiteous as a shabti shambles past. It studies the clay creature with the blind face, eyeholes made with jabs of fingers, leathery skin painted with ocher. Kin of sorts they are, flesh of the bitmites’ word, soulstuff made solid in the Vellum . . . or once kin, rather. Unkin.

The sylph turns back to its destination, to the Haven. To Kentigern.

Footsteps echo on asphalt and concrete as it starts down into the slumscape. It cocks its head—sounds of glass being raked from windows, wood splintered from frames and bricks unmortared by hammer and screwdriver, ax and crowbar; the noises are distant, the shabtis sparse and solitary in their ghetto half-life. As the sylph heads farther in, the wild of Hinter dies off to a flurry, and the hollow house shells come clearer, all bracken plaster, bare-brick rumbled out of square-shape, polythene in windows where there should be glass. Twenty years wide, the postwar zone of tower block and bunker bungalows is what they call a novagrad, in the creole lingischt of the afterworld. A new city schemed with villas and verges, sapling trees and car parks, all arranged in an artifice of neighborhoods by planners doodling on acid. Streets flow aimless into dead-end curlicues, organic whorls. Not the grid system of a far-ago city but something drawn in crayons held between a madman’s teeth, inhabited by clay mock-ups of humanity.

It is 2037, two decades after the apocalypse.

The sylph begins to run. There’s risk here. Paths wind, roads branch and spiral as a mazing of vodoun veves. Here the deep dead lose themselves in intricacies of what might have been, entranced in an eternal mundane moment: a child caught pissing in the bushes outside an angry neighbor’s house; a drunk forever trying to get his key into the front door lock. The Havens aren’t meant for shades, for strands of skandas, sylphs and shabtis; New Amsterdam, St. Leninsburg, Instantinople . . . Kentigern, each has its novagrad to trap the ghosts that gather round its gates. But the sylph moves fast, stays focused on its destination and ignores the echoes of others’ footsteps, till—

The floodlights of the Way Station burn furious white. They strobe, seen through the rails of the perimeter fence as the sylph lopes lupine alongside it. Barbed wire on the roof, with streamers of shredded plastic bags caught in it, steel shutters graved with graffiti, Roman, Cyrillic—the place is entrenched, still defending against a kind of war that ended a world ago, back when this was the place where the convoys came in with the truckloads of food for us, thank God, we’re starving here, but there’s less of them this time and there wasn’t enough to go round the last time, God, why is this all they’re doing, doesn’t it mean anything to them that we’re dying here, doesn’t it mean anything, God help us, oh, God help us.

The sylph throws back its head, and echoes of the dead roar from its mouth.

Harlequin in Rags of Skin

“Behold!”

Monsieur Reynard walks out onto the stage and makes a flourish with his feathered hat, the King of Players, bowing as he twirls his fake mustache.

“Behold,” he says, “our hero, Harlequin in rags of skin, a fool, a clown, a wandering wastrel newly arrived in town.”

And as our comedy’s Reynard the Fox, the King of Thieves, the Scaramouche, he smiles most charmingly as Jack leaps with a somersault onto the boards, to land down on one knee before the lords and ladies of this little corner of eternity. Guy strolls and shrugs, immune to all their gasps at Jack’s jaguar agility. But, then, who better to narrate this tale of Harlequin, the Jack of Hearts, the Joker in the pack, with all the requisite insouciance? Who else is there who can outstrut the cock?

“Our hero’s story, sad to say,” glooms Guy, holding his hat over his heart, “is like the clothes he wears, a patchwork motley born of poverty. See how his nursemaid clothed the bastard boy in scraps . . .”

Our Harlequin wears a more ancient costume than the multicolored diamonds of more cultured stages. Umbers and ambers, browns and blacks and reds, the tight-stretched leather of the cat suit, faun and beige, a hundred different shades of hide, of cow and kid, of horse and deer, of pig and snake, of antelope and lion, unicorn and king, smooth to his supple frame as flippant, flighty Jack bounces and flounces, backflips, pirouettes and cartwheels on the stage.

“Fucking show-off,” mutters Joey as he lets the curtain drop back into place.

“Jealous,” I say.

Jack struts the boards, looks back at me offstage and winks. It’s all for me, I think. Jack doesn’t give a fuck for them; the only thing he really cares for is his Puck. He treats this audience of fine impostures with a rock star’s pouting scorn, the Duke, the Princess and their courtiers idling out there on their thrones and cushions while the flunkies pour wine into goblets for them, tugging their forelocks at these self-proclaimed highborn.

“And here a king,” says Guy. “We’ll call him Pierrot, for he’s a king of tears, of tears that flow like wine for what he’s lost in Columbine.”

Joey in black suit and tie, white shirt and whiteface, black eyeliner painting tears beneath his eyes, stalks on stage left, a Mafioso Pierrot. A hiss of dry ice swirls gray mist around him out into the hall. He twirls a hand in cold, contemptuous voilà, ever the villain.

“Then there is Pantaloon,” says Guy, and Don walks on to bow with pomp and grandeur, bowing so low his long gray beard gets underfoot and trips him, staggering forward almost off the stage and into the laughing audience. “Grandfather of the king,” says Guy, “and father of Columbine who we’ll meet presently. You’ll see. I ask you only to have trust in me. But who am I? Why, I am Scaramouche, a man of wisdom, cunning even in so many ways, but in some other ways” [he taps his roguish eye patch] “blind, but” [and he flicks the eye patch up to show a wink and drops it down again] “not quite so blind as you might think.

“But we are mere supporting players in this show, we Scaramouches and Pantaloons. This is a tale of Pierrot and Harlequin.”

“I hear you ask,” he says, “who is this Harlequin? Where is he from, you ask. Where has he been? Who is this Harlequin behind the mask, his face unseen? We’ll tell you this: He’s left behind him in his ludic path a million friezes and gardens engraved in gold. Over the sun-scorched plains of prose, through snowstorm media, past walled towns of factory art, he’s wandered through the whole harem, the length and breadth of all the Orient, that promised land where city-states stretch out along the salt sea and the peoples of the West and East meet, mix and marry. This is the first city of the hellions that he’s reached, an ancient city known as Themes.”

Guy waves his arm around him in a way encompassing both the backdrop of our wagon and the audience of watching faces; the whole pseudo-medieval Haven of the hall, the gargoyled columns of the walls, the podium directly facing us across the floor, all seem just as theatrical, as artificial, as our mummer’s wagon with its drop-down stage and metal scaffolding of rigging, spotlights, speakers and the complex engineering of Don’s special effects. But the Duke’s absurd theater has its differences from ours, our stage constructed in the aim of entertainment, his designed in the pursuit of power.

“All we can do,” says Guy, “is picture all the dances that this Harlequin’s decreed along the way, the rites he’s wrought in revelations of his spirit to humanity; those wonders are behind him now. But here, my friends, we see our Harlequin in kidskin, with his staff, his green-veined wand in hand, in the first city of the hellions to ever ring with the strange hallelujahs that he sings. My friends, the Harlequin has come home.”

The Dereliction of a Hundred Suburbias

The sylph shakes the skanda strands from its head with a growl, but the scent of dead souls drifting fills its nostrils still, the smell of cigarette smoke snatched as someone passes you in the street, the smells of public transport, smells of old and young, male and female, stale fart and aftershave, curry and spearmint, shower gel and sweat. Mingled memories of parents in people carriers lifting children out to hand to ragged refugees who grab the food parcels out of the soldiers’ hands and rip the wrappers off the bars of chocolate, crumple them and drop the can and kick it and turn and dribble past the fat boy to shoot at the fire door where the man in the clean suit nails the notice . . .

The echoes might have belonged to anyone. They might even have belonged to the sylph, if it was human once. It might have come here, refugee or villager, in some broken bit of city—houses, streets and schemes of them, all turning, tilting in the storm of Evenfall like furniture detritus tumbling in floodwaters—when the bitmites broke loose. It might have come here seeking shelter in the drifting terror of the Evenfall, but failing to find it. It’s hard to tell anymore. The sylph has been out in the Hinter for so long that it is the Hinter, bitmites for its blood and body.

“Halz! Qua entre resirken?”

The guard wears the nightshades and the sky-blue helmet of a peacekeeper, but his uniform is a mix of gear from many armies, over it a bulky duffel coat with its collar turned up against the cold, fluorescent plastic patches on the shoulders as a poor man’s epaulets. A cut scars down his face, the stitches still in, but where the scab should be the skin is clean and bloodless, more like a fabric that’s been hastily mended than a living wound still healing. He smokes the roach of a skinny joint, his disrupter pointed straight at the sylph’s head. Behind him, the Way Station looks as dead as the rest of the dreamtime scheme, but more stable in its squat single story, fenced off and guarded.

The sylph is unconcerned. Steel and concrete, guards and guns, might have kept the Haven safe once from the riots of the dislocated when the world was still as firm as flesh and survivors huddled behind barricades, shooting shambling things that came at them out of the cracks in reality. But it’s different now; now the shadows and reflections released by the bitmites, creatures like the sylph given strange fluid substance by the angel dust, come as inscrutable supplicants that simply cannot be refused. They slide in through the niches in the back of someone’s mind, in the highlights in a person’s eye, and even scattered by disrupters they fall, flow and re-form. The only real defense the enclaves of reality and order have against such things is to invite them in.

The sentry studies the sylph ...

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