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The Last Page by Anthony Huso

The Last Page by Anthony Huso
4.25
Book Name: The Last Page
Author: Anthony Huso
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): New Weird
Release Date: August 17, 2010 (US) July 15, 2014 (UK)

I must admit I started reading The Last Page years ago and got distracted, eventually abandoning it to gather dust in a corner of my flat. Now, like many bookish people, I’ve found myself digging back through my shelves and TBR pile to find ways to pass time in lockdown. And I’m glad I did.

Let’s talk briefly about the New Weird, a subgenre of speculative fiction that dances gleefully along the borders between sci-fi, horror and fantasy. Rarely set on Earth, often inspired in part by the Weird Fiction of the early 20th century, frequently featuring horrific or transgressive elements and usually based in an urban setting.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is perhaps the most well-known example. Though I’d call Ann and Jeff VanderMeer the uncrowned queen and king of the New Weird, due to their prominent writing, anthologising and thinking on the subject. Their definition of the genre is, “a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.” The New Weird also encompasses the work of authors like Jeffrey Ford, Steph Swainston, Justina Robson, Jay Lake, Mary Gentle and Rjurik Davidson.

And Anthony Huso.

The world of The Last Page is grim and cruel, eldritch, and bizarre. Zeppelins battle in the skies and human-alien hybrids slither through the sewers. Ancient ruins hold the secrets of civilisations that predate mankind and practitioners of magic perform ecstatic rituals to beckon god-like horrors from other dimensions.

We explore this decaying world through the eyes of two main characters as well as a host of side characters, from hybrid infiltrators to spymasters.

Caliph Howl (great name) meets Sena Iilool at the High College of Desdae and, in spite of himself, begins a torrid affair with her. Desdae is a place of higher learning where the secrets of holomorphy (scientific blood magic) may be learned, along with many other subjects. But this is not a magic school story and the narrative soon moves on. Sena and Caliph graduate and go their separate ways. She pursues an occult agenda while he is dragged back home to take up his duties as High King of the chilly and windswept Duchy of Stonehold.

Caliph doesn’t want to be High King. A powerful military leader from the other end of the Duchy agrees with him and leads an uprising against him. Unable to step down and very much doubting his own ability to win a war, Caliph’s world has become lethally complicated. And then Sena sashays back into his life.

Sena’s main motivation is to locate and decipher the Cisrym Ta—a mysterious grimoire that could unlock godlike power. But she is one of the Shradnae Witches, a powerful, secretive, and much despised sisterhood that ruthlessly infiltrates and manipulates the nations of the world. (Which is not to say that those nations aren’t doing unpleasant and questionable things themselves.) She is ordered to capitalise on her relationship with Caliph.

Caliph is an intriguing hero. Talented, handsome, and well aware of his gifts but rarely happy in himself. Though seemingly cold, and often dismissive of the pomposity of those in power, he does genuinely want to help people, or at least do a good job in his unwanted role as their king. He’s a fine duellist and can use holomorphy but seems happy to rely on other resources unless pressed. He’s very clever and incredibly calculating. He will suffer pain and danger and sacrifice the lives of others for his goals. A very introspective man, he often descends into self-loathing as he contemplates the schemes he has put into motion.

Though very clever herself, Sena is much more of a classic badass, willing to get her hands dirty, able to climb around on walls and rooftops and wield the science-magic of her sisterhood with terrifying skill. An expert at seduction and manipulation, she tends to be more than a match for Caliph or anyone else. We spend plenty of time inside Sena’s head and we see her wrestling with her personal loyalties and questioning both her own motives and beliefs and her feelings for Caliph. She’s not a one-note character, by any means. But Huso clearly enjoys describing her beauty and body in luscious and even lustful detail.

Similarly, the Shradnae Witches as a whole possess incredible, though risky, powers of mind control, illusion, teleportation, hexing and more. Their operatives are trained in subterfuge, reading people, lockpicking, interrogation, climbing, fighting and assassination. All quite cool and perhaps even empowering for readers who identify with female characters. However, when they’re not doing magic the Shradnae’s preferred method of exerting control over the world is through sex. Find a powerful man, have sex with him, steal his secrets and whisper Shradnae-approved ideas into his ear. I’m not saying a blend of sex and espionage can’t make for an interesting story (see the Kushiel’s Legacy series for proof it can), but this does feel like a very male-gazey way of characterising powerful women. Albeit, it justifies and complicates Sena’s relationship with Caliph.

But then, this novel does court discomfort. Like Miéville and the VanderMeers, Huso seems to revel in the squishier, stinkier parts of life. Massive slabs of living, brainless meat hang from hooks and spray liquid effluence out of their lower orifices. Weird, slimy creatures ‘make love’ to wounds, drawing out the blood, eating infection and pumping clean blood and healing chemicals into the patient. Large insects lay their eggs directly into the brains of small animals. A character has an attack of panic-induced diarrhoea. Not my cup of tea at all and possibly the reason I didn’t finish the book the first-time round. But I hear some people like this sort of thing and may consider it a plus.

On the other hand, the novel fizzes and bubbles over with invention. Swords that deliver a deadly electric shock if they pierce flesh. Gas-powered crossbows and ‘chemiostatic’ flying suits. Horses with long claws and tentacular tails. Knights clad in mechanical armour. Sentient creatures that lack a central brain and have their consciousness spread across a network of nerves, making them extremely difficult to kill.

If you liked the gritty but imaginative and high-powered action of the Jackelian series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, or the Shadows of the Apt, you’ll probably get a kick out of this book.

I must admit I loved the crazed, genre-bending variety of Huso’s creation. My initial foray into the book was a big influence on the homebrew RPG setting I’ve worked on and run for years now and might even publish someday. (Because most every GM has a setting they’d like to publish ‘someday’.) It’s hard for me to talk objectively about the plot and the characters without getting side-tracked into geeking out over the setting. Huso routinely and casually brings up ideas other authors would dedicate a whole series to. So, I’ll just say the plot and its many mysteries worked well enough and the characters were interesting enough to keep my attention, but it was the worldbuilding that really did it for me. Isca, the capital city of Stonehold, is rife with fascinating details and places that demand to be explored—Ghoul Court, East Murkbell and Hullmallow Cathedral. And that’s without considering the vast pre-human history of this world or the weird technology wielded by nations like Pandragonia or Pplar.

Speaking of worldbuilding. Huso later wrote for the Dishonored video game franchise. Given that it includes occultism, weird quasi-steampunk technology and acrobatic assassin-witches, it’s clear The Last Page was a prototype for the much-praised setting of those games, intentionally or not. (And so, in a way, for the highly successful tabletop RPG Blades in the Dark, which riffs heavily on Dishonored.)

Back to the novel. Huso has a fine turn of phrase, paints pictures of strange, beguiling, gothic beauty and loves to throw obscure or invented words at the reader, sometimes explaining them and sometimes not. Perilous forests, alien tombs, haunted and crumbling mansions, odd professions, it’s all there. Logophiles (word lovers) will probably enjoy expanding their vocabulary by hunting down the meanings of all the terms Huso uses or invents. Other people may find this wearing after a while. If Vance’s verbosity is too much for you then Huso’s will likely not appeal either. Me, I love a good bit of descriptive writing.

To conclude. This novel is like a cocktail made by a mad scientist, a roiling, filthy brew, rich with intoxicating flavours that might just make you throw up. You may like it, you may hate it, but you certainly won’t have read anything else quite like it.

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