Might as well talk about 'Ink' and 'Vellum' together, since they're really one work.
Conveniently, Duncan describes his work himself, within the text of the book:
"...the Book has as many histories as the world itself, and it contains them all in its Moebius loop of time and space, of contradicting stories somehow fused as one confused and rambling tale, a sort of truth but full of inconsistencies and digressions, spurious interpolations and interpretations, fiction told as fact, fact told as fiction..."
At least, that's the goal.
It starts off promisingly: a student seeks to steal a secret vellum manuscript - the Book of All Hours - a book which determines and reflects reality, which contains all possible realities... a book written in the language of angels, upon the skin of angels, which contains the entirety of the time-space continuum. This is connected to a War in Heaven, agents of the angels that walk upon the earth, and a lot of Sumerian mythology. It began by reminding me of Storm Constantine's Grigori books, and Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest. Neither of those is a bad thing.
However, there's a problem with writing a book about a book that is supposed to contain all things, when you intend the format of your book to reflect that of your fictional book. How do you edit it? What should go in, and what shouldn't? I would have had trouble editing this book, I have to admit. And, in the end, I don't think it worked.
It's obvious that Duncan wrote several reasonably coherent narratives, then chopped them up at mostly-random, and mixed them together. He also wrote a lot of random Other Stuff (thoughts in his head that day?) and stuck those in too. (It reminded me of doing college creative writing assignments, when I sometimes pieced disparate pieces of my writing together in order to make up a page count by a deadline.)
Yes, the reader can piece the narratives together as s/he goes along, but do the "inconsistencies and digressions, spurious interpolations and interpretations" serve a purpose? I kept hoping that they would. I have to admit that my interest was waning by the end of the first book, but I read the whole second book with the hope that it would all get pulled together. I don't feel that that happened.
Duncan is obviously a smart guy. He's very obviously well and widely educated. There are a lot of interesting ideas in these books, and many of the small vignettes are expertly and beautifully written. He has a nice command of the English language. However, I couldn't help feeling that he might be more suited to writing essays than novels. I bet he's good at academic papers, too.
About halfway through the second book, I was thinking about why I really wasn't enjoying it, and I realized that all of the characters, no matter which reality they're currently in, whether they speak in a broadly-written accent, are young or old, or even (in one case) female, seem like they're actually the same person: Hal Duncan(?)
I kid you not, after I realized that, on the very next page, I came across this quote: "there's a deeper connection between them - Jack, Puck, Anna, Joey, Don and himself...Finnan too, wherever he is. The seven of them, seven souls, but maybe really only one...identity."
Yep. They're all the same person. And they're too busy being archetypes, metaphors or mouthpieces most of the time, to be convincing characters.
Duncan says, "Let us consider reality itself as a palimpsest." OK, consider that considered. I even really like the idea. I like a LOT of the ideas in this book. But I feel that those idea would have come through better through the use of a more consistent format - not even necessarily a traditional format, but just a more consistent one. For example, part 3 (the first half of 'Ink') is largely taken up by the characters putting on a performance of a version of 'The Bacchae.' However, Greek drama plays little part in any of the other sections of the book. It feels out-of-place. As do many of the other "spurious interpolations" within the text.
I feel like Duncan said, "well, it's inconsistent because I want it to be inconsistent." But I still prefer consistency. And characters with individual identities.
I often really like things that others describe, negatively, as "pretentious." But this is one of those rare occasions where I am feeling moved to use "pretentious" in a negative sense. This book is pretentious.