The Last Page
Anthony Huso’s debut novel The Last Page is certainly a tough one. Highly original and rife with elements of the weird it is a fantasy novel quite unlike any I have ever read. The blurb on the book from Glen Cook mentions a link to “science fantasy” and that comparison is not too far off base. The Last Page is a novel unlike anything on the market today; an important distinction since its unique style and willingness to borrow conventions from outside the typical fantasy genre called to mind the old school fantasists featured in the pages of Weird Tales (authors like C. L. Moore and Fritz Leiber). In a genre that has become somewhat insular and self-referential The Last Page is a rare exercise in invention and originality.
The Last Page initially centers on Caliph Howl a young man finishing his studies at school while reluctantly awaiting the summons home to assume the unwanted kingship of Isca. Caliph, in the last year or so of his studies meets Sena a fellow student and the two students quickly form a bond. Sena is not quite what she seems; Sena is a Shradnae witch who seeks the mysterious Cisrym Ta; an ancient grimoire of unknown power. The book is locked by magic and in order to open it she needs to betray someone who loves her. Of course, Caliph’s kingdom is threatened by civil war while other unknown things move against both Sena and Caliph.
One thing I should note is that the invented language and unique characters used throughout The Last Page look completely terrible on my nook. Looking at the Nook for PC software I can see they don’t look bad there so the difficulty must be on the device itself rather than the file. It’s a minor quibble but The Last Page is liberally sprinkled with this bit of invention. Secondly, and another pitfall of reading The Last Page on an e-reader is that the glossary and pronunciation guide for these letters and words is located at the end of the novel. It is a chore and a distraction to flip to that information while reading. To be fair my first choice for reading The Last Page was print, but as happens here in the library, it has seemingly disappeared off the shelves.
Like I mentioned at the start of this review The Last Page is a difficult novel. The original elements like the invented language, and a complex cosmology require a bit of a stretch for readers more familiar with traditional fantasy. Those flexible readers who feel confident in their ability to stretch their expectation will be rewarded by an engrossing story in a strange world. While, the civil war in Isca and Caliph’s struggle to rule might be expected to take center stage I thought the novel was really something closer to a character study and was at its strongest when dealing with the witch Sena. Certainly the civil war offers an external threat and the novel spends some time dealing with Caliph’s struggles there but by and large the conflicts of the novel are relegated to the internal realms of our character’s thoughts and the dark shadows barely glimpse amidst the chaos of war.
By far my favorite parts of The Last Page were those that dragged in elements of horror. I was particularly and pleasantly horrified by Caliph’s discovery of how his nation is kept fed. Take for example Huso’s description of the “farm” and the meat it houses:
Like a cattle yard, where butchered animals were hung on hooks to drain. Only these great carcasses were alive and three times size of a butchered cow. Three heavy chains hooked onto iron rings that pierced their upper portion and suspended each living meat several feet above the floor. They were vaguely the shape of a human heart and the iron rings that suspended them pulled the tissue into painful-looking triangles…The meat had no arms or legs. It had no skin but a translucent bluish white membrane that covered the dark maroon muscle tissue and bulging blue veins underneath. Lumpy patches of yellow adipose clustered in grooves and seams where the muscles joined in useless perfection.
Cable-thick tubing ran from above, bundled together and coupled into various implanted sockets for reasons obviously associated with sustaining dubious life.
Occasionally, muscles twitched or a sudden shudder wen through the enormous cohesion of mindless flesh and sent the body swinging in the slow tight spiral allowed by the chains.
At the bottom of the meat, near the pointed but snubbed posterior, something like an anus spewed filth with peristaltic violence into a square depression in the floor. Urine dribbled or sprayed from hidden hole proximal to the defecating sphincter, help to wash soupy piles of shit and blood toward runnels in the floor.
That is disgusting and brilliant in a very twisted kind of way. It’s combination of horrific abomination with the cold calculation of necessity wavering between tempering and magnifying the horror. Huso, simultaneously throws at us a scene of gory horror and a complex social and moral issue. It’s a trick he will continue to use to great effect over the course of the novel. Of course he will also throw other horrors at readers, ones that reminded me somewhat of the Deep Ones and worshipers of Dagon from Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth, while simultaneously hinting at cosmic horrors lurking unseen in the places between the world.
The Last Page is rife with these touches of horror and on Huso’s website he speaks briefly on horror:
For me, fantasy must play chameleon in exactly this way, offer beauty hidden in horror; promise loveliness then suddenly throw its head back and scream. This is something I think horror on its own struggles to do because I always suspect it. But fantasy can go both ways. The horror can dissolve suddenly and unexpectedly into bliss, which I think enhances the sense of unpredictability. It is surprise and uncertainty, especially the uncertainty of how to react, that I prize.
That “uncertainty of how to react” is emblematic of much of The Last Page and it is a curious sensation that few, if any, other fantasy novels manage to evoke. While I was a bit off-put by what I felt was a lack of focus with regards to the novel’s external conflicts Huso’s constant invention, hints of things in the shadows, and masterful portrayal of his character’s and their relationship kept me entranced for every page. It is the kind of novel that after reading it once I want to explore again just to examine the details that my initial read is sure to have missed. I excited to see what Huso comes up with next and I am excited (an excitement tinged with a sort of manic dread) to explore more of The Last Page’s strange, wondrous, world.