|I enjoyed 'The Last Page', the first half of a duology completed by 'Black Bottle' in 2012, but found that it fought me all the way.
Huso, not a writer by trade but a game designer driven to write, has a lot of what it takes. His imagination is vivid, essential for a creator of worlds. His vocabulary is daunting and his turn of phrase is often delicious. Yet it feels to me that this story didn't end up the way he initially envisaged it; like the Cisrym Ta, an arcane book of magical lore that features heavily in the text, it refused to bow to his will and ended up shaping him as much as he shaped it.
Certainly the first act is the strongest, as we meet Caliph Howl at university and begin his story. He's a clever young man and a good student, but he's clearly a lot more than that too and not only because he becomes the High King of Stonehold. There's a sense of destiny about him, that he will do much, but we're never sure how much of his work will be good, bad or somewhere in between. He's an intriguing character and it's no challenge to get caught up in his world.
He's complicated all the more by the arrival of Sena Iilool, who is never merely a romantic interest at school. She flits in and out of his life, always her own character and never just his girlfriend, his lover or the High King's Witch. We're unsure from moment one if she's there for him or for herself, the only surety being that she's just as unsure about that herself. This relationship grows as the characters grow and, for the longest time, it's one of the strongest aspects of the book.
As her eventual nickname suggests, she's the most obviously and unashamedly magical character in a world in which magic is an everyday necessity, harnessed by the powers of industry and brought to bear in political machinations and actions of war. Yet, for all that it's omnipresent, this world seems to shy away from it, as if proximity to it is a dangerous thing. Sena, as a powerful and ambitious young witch, becomes a battleground as we try to decide if she's mastering the art or the art is mastering her. How the people see her is how they see magic and how Caliph sees her affects how he uses magic for the Duchy of Stonehold.
The subject arises quickly. As Caliph graduates and takes his throne in the city of
, he finds that his timing is tough, that he's immediately tasked with quelling a rebellion against his nascent rule. As he's forced to grow to meet the needs of his city, the story is forced to grow with him and the second act unfolds well. It helps that Isca is a fascinating location, all the more so because much of it is not as it seems. It claws its way into our minds to enforce itself as a character of its own, as does the Cisrym Ta, to which Sena has dedicated more of her life than we see in this volume.
One fundamental flaw with 'The Last Page' is that both these creations become such draws that we side with them over the people who attempt to shape them. The lead characters, well-drawn from the outset, gradually grow away from the writer, the story and each other. As the magical symbiosis between them weakens, often becoming antagonistic, I sided more and more with the city and the book and less with Caliph and Sena.
I did want to know where their stories would go, but I ached far more to read the smaller stories that are set up early but often not returned to and left hanging, possibly for the sequel or possibly not. I wanted to learn more about the history of the Cisrym Ta in more overt language than Huso is willing to use. I especially wanted to immerse myself in the delightfully weird dangers of
to discover the secrets, mysteries and nightmares hiding under every stone. There's a mythos growing here that is more attractive than the story unfolding around it.
While serving up these enticing glimpses of what might just be going on in Isca, Anthony Huso concentrates on the characters, even as they lose their complexity and become set on their particular paths. Caliph concentrates on winning the war and saving the city, while Sena concentrates on unlocking the wonders of the Cisrym Ta. Their journeys do weave in and out of each other but their connections become less substantial each time, as do the characters themselves. They fade away.
Their disconnection from each other and by extension from us is one reason I was disappointed with the book's ending. A larger concern is that it isn't really an ending at all, instead a strange mix of continuation, afterthought and half remembered dream. It felt like Huso had placed us where the story would reach its peak, only for the story to do that somewhere else entirely. Maybe his use of language, often as cryptic as it is descriptive, began to mirror that of the book he wrote about, so that 'The Last Page' becomes as much a puzzle to ponder as a story to enjoy.
Certainly that's how it left me. It's a great success, but it's also a dismal failure. It drew me in powerfully but then left me cold. It's immersive but also frustrating. It may have told me nothing but it won't leave my brain because maybe it told me everything and I didn't quite notice. Like the magic it writes about, it's impossible to put my finger on exactly what it is. So much of it feels right but the end result feels wrong.
It's as if we're being given a front seat to worldchanging events but in such a way that we don't see them unfold, merely experience them through some level of magical disconnection that phrases them not as detailed newsreel but as fragmentary legend. It's an odd feeling, one that I don't recall encountering with a novel before. I believe that 'The Last Page' will stay with me but perhaps only in fleeting ways that I can't yet imagine. ~~ Hal C F Astell