The Last Page
Author – Anthony Huso
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: August 17th, 2010
Every year, Fantasy is inundated with novels that promise to the be the ‘next big thing’, and they almost always seem to be familiar stories, harping on the successes of the genre’s classics. Sometimes they find the success they promise (like Patrick Rothfuss’ enormous hit The Name of the Wind), and other times they wither away and never live up to the hype heaped upon their shoulders (like Robert Newcomb’s lamentable The Fifth Sorcerer); then, there are novels like Anthony Huso’s The Last Page – they’re small, quiet releases that genuinely embrace the genre’s roots, but instead of imitating their influences, they set out to create something new, something fresh.
At its very heart, The Last Page is a love story. Sure, on the surface its got prophecy and grimoires, armies and sword fights, but the true strength and soul of the novel lies in the relationship between Sena Iilool and Caliph Howl. The whirlwind love of these two is like many real-world relationships, it never quite knows itself and often redefines its rules and expectations on a whim. Instead of setting them up with love-at-first-site, Huso builds a realistic, nuanced relationship between them, as caustic as it is lustful. Sena and Caliph are both powerful figures in their own right and hidden between the lines of their tryst are powerplays and hidden agendas which sometimes align, but often contradict. They use each other constantly, but always in the name of love and lust. Like many relationships, the true root of their love (if it even exists), lies deep at the bottom of their muddy emotions and greedy machinations. It’s a refreshing change of pace in a genre that so often has the kitchenboy falling madly in love with a princess by page three.
The Last Page‘s influences are clear, but many. Huso weaves aspects of Epic Fantasy (in the form of magic books, invading armies and motley assassins), Steampunk (zeppelins, guns and tanks), Lovecraftian Horror (some truly frightening beasts and angry, universe crumpling gods), Urban Fantasy, heavy doses of Mievilleesque New Weird and even a light dalliance with Military Fantasy. With a quilt-like structure (each square built from one sub-genre), Huso’s story and world could easily have become a convoluted, cannibalistic mess, but, instead, he handles it with the aplomb and skill of a veteran writer. The weird world of Stonehold could stand beside the work of contemporaries like Mieville or Newton and never miss a beat.
Huso’s world isn’t just weird in the obvious Fantasy elements, but also injected in many of its more mundane aspects. Take his analogue to horses:
She kicked her horse. Its bouquet of tails snarled. It coughed viciously, and stamped its claws into the clay. Even these intimidating creatures seemed to grow nervous as evening sucked away the day. (p. 364)
Robin Hobb once said (and I loosely paraphrase from memory), “for a reader to believe in your dragons, they must first believe in your rabbits.” In other words, to build a believable Fantasy world, you have to get the little things right, lull your reader into comfortable complacency by offering them familiarity, then wow them with the fantastic. If you get the rabbits wrong, why would they believe what you have to say about the dragons? Huso, on the other hand, does the exact opposite. His characters ride around on horses, like any Fantasy novel, but he leaves just enough hints to remind the reader that they’re not in Kansas anymore. It’s subtle, but effective world- and atmosphere-building.
Equally familiar-yet-strange, is Huso’s take on magic. It’s filled with everything you’ve come to expect from magic – grimoires and glyphs, otherworldly energy and magic languages – but it’s also grounded in some very firm sciences. It’s not a magic system that creates god-like magicians, capable of doing whatever their will dictates, but, rather it has rules, stipulations and consequences, and when those rules start bending, the repercussions on the world are similar to what would happen to Science if physics all of a sudden developed a new set of rules.
[H]olomorphy was a kind of legalese that focused reason through the lens of the mathematician. Holomorphs were reality lawyers whose logic convinced the world to bend. (p. 108)
In contrast to novels like Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy, both of which have logically explained, but Dungeons & Dragons-esque magic systems, it’s nice to run across such an esoteric yet logical approach to mysticism. Like those aforementioned authors, Huso throws a lot of jargon at the reader (Holomorpy, Witchocracy, Solvitrol power, etc…), but it never feels like you’re being taught a lesson on how magic works; instead each layer’s just peeled back and revealed when necessary. Did you blink? Then you’d better go back and re-read that last paragraph, because you’re not getting another reminder. In many ways, it reminds me of how magic and magicians would actually operate were it to exist in our world.
Important to the tone of the novel, and making the difficult-to-grasp magic is Huso’s ability to actually write, and it’s there in spades. The Last Page is filled with wonderful prose. It’s at once baroque, yet easy-to-read at the same time. Huso has a way of revealing the world that’s often unusual, but startlingly real at the same time.
The following day, green leaves rained sporadically, petulant that they, in their subtle beauty, should be ripped from their laughing parties on the limbs and tossed out like rowdy guests. They tumbled from branches, destined to be changes hideously against the ground. With irregular weather patterns along the cooling sea, the wheat fields swirled with fog. (p. 312)
So often in Fantasy, leaves just rustle in the wind, fall silently to the ground or are just not mentioned at all. In Huso’s novel, they laugh, they get petulant and cause a fuss. His mountains aren’t just capped with snow, but rather dusted with powdered sugar like a great dessert, a prankster’s grand hoax against a kingdom (p. 312). Clouds of acrid smoke are emerald jellyfish (p. 204) and shadows kiss in the sunlight fluttering down through the ghostwoods (p. 54). Huso has a way with metaphor and description that straddles the line between poetic and readable, and shows remarkable poise for a writer only just starting his career.
I’d be remiss, also, if I didn’t make some comment about the absolutely lovely packaging of the novel. From the beautiful cover art to the heavy, deckled pages, to the starkly embossed rune on the front, it’s just a wonderful book to hold and enjoy. It’s not a terribly important note, but, for a novel about love, books and knowledge, it’s nice to see that aspect of the product paid so much attention.
There’s nothing like getting your hands on the latest release from a favourite author, but there’s also something special in discovering a debut novelist whose work is so immediately arresting and refuses to let the reader go until the final page (hah!) has been turned. It’s a shame that Huso’s debut isn’t getting pushed as hard as Rothfuss, Abercrombie or Sanderson, for he certainly deserves it. One can’t help but see the similarities to Daniel Abraham and the unfortunately under-the-radar release of his wonderful debut, A Shadow in Summer. Certainly the best debut I’ve read this year, and in the top five of all novels. Debuts like this don’t come around often, and fans of weird, wonderful Fantasy should be clambering over each other to get their hands on The Last Page.