The Last Page by Anthony Huso
Language is one of these slippery concepts. We learn how to communicate meaning from the moment we are born. Most often, we rely on words, but there can be fundamental changes in meaning depending on the choice of words in a given context. Worse, everything can be changed again by body language, expression, accent, intonation. . . Even the clothes we wear can signal different meanings. The whole process of communication is one of the most complicated activities we engage in and, for the most part, we do it with unconscious ease. This often makes it difficult for outsiders to learn such that, almost before someone opens their mouth, they can be identified as an outsider.
When we are forced to rely on the written word, there are real choices to be made. We could opt for simple words in uncomplicated sentence structures. Or we could create complicated clauses with difficult vocabulary. Our decisions will depend on who are writing to or for. If we have no great expectations of our readers, we write as simply as possible. If we expect sophistication, we can allow full rein to our creativity.
I start with this more general introduction because The Last Page by Anthony Huso is something of a puzzle. This is a book which, I suppose, we call high fantasy. Many authors who create these strange worlds of magic use an elevated form of language to add a veneer of the outré. When under control, this can become a powerful way of creating a sense of the different and unconventional. Handled badly and language becomes melodramatic or, at worst, it forms a barrier to understanding. Hopefully, whatever we write for each other is accessible. Except, when people becomes too involved in thinking about the words, meaning can grow blurred and be lost. As an example, take a sentence describing someone climbing in through an upper window:
“Her silhouette balled, extruded and swung like taffy into the murky triangle of shadow beneath the second gable’s crest.” p.289.
It’s at times like this that readers pause, momentarily distracted by their speculation on what taffy looks like when it’s being swung around. I would be the last person to deny Anthony Huso his right to delve into language and produce interesting similes and metaphors. I’m often self-indulgent in these reviews and end up writing in a complicated way. So, knowing myself to be in a glass house, I offer the mild opinion that Huso’s use of language is sometimes excessive. Not only is meaning obscured by neologisms, but it gets in the way of producing a clear view of characters and their motivations.
There’s also a real structural problem. The usual convention when a book starts off in a place of education is to give us a chance to learn a little of the society, politics and magic that makes this world go around. Teachers cast their pearls of wisdom and lazy students extract odd passages from what later turn out to be key texts. However it’s done, we should have a clear foreshadowing of what’s to come when our key characters leave the nest. Except, at no point in the book do we get a clear overview of exactly what the magical systems are nor how they work. Frankly, it just feels as though Huso made it up as he went along without having a coherent description of the magic systems before starting off. So we have a set of different cults and groups, each having different access to magic. Some seem to rely on a form of mathematics, others draw power from blood or, even, captured souls. There appear to be supernatural beings who inhabit a different dimension and occasionally break through into the physical reality of the world with destructive effect. Equally, there are mutants with obviously unnatural physical bodies who may be the result of breeding between supernatural and human partners. We even have resurrection. I have read versions of all these ideas elsewhere. Worse, at times, Huso seems to be introducing features simply to express horror or revulsion, as in the random description of surgery as entertainment.
This is not to say that all the ideas are poor or unoriginal. But there’s a general lack of coherence so that the whole feels like an overcomplicated mess. It’s the same with the politics. Some of the manipulations are quite clever with the spymaster Vhortghast playing a deep game. But there’s altogether too much going on. The Shradnae witches compete with the general weirdness of the Willin Droul for control of the book of power called Cisrym Ta. The young witch Sena is caught up in internal politics of the witchocracy but, inevitably, is the renegade who finds the book and takes up with the young king, Caliph Howl. Together, they “save” most of the city and countryside. I largely understand the mundane part of the plan. Quite what process Sena goes through remains a mystery to me. I had probably stopped reading the text carefully enough by the time I came to this part and I have no desire to go back and see if it makes any better sense on a second reading. All that can be said is that she gouges her eyes and, having seen into the nature of matter, becomes superhuman.
In its favour is a general sense of energy and a willingness to trying pushing the genre envelope, but the result is indisciplined and overcomplicated with too many characters introduced and then not really used. Personally, I blame the editorial staff who should have taken this author in hand and shown him how to pull a good novel together out of all these disparate strands. So it’s no worse than many a first novel, but it may herald the introduction of someone to watch in the future. For the record, The Last Page is the first in a duology and the sequel is called Black Bottle.
Jacket artwork by Phil Holland.