The Last Page: Thrills and originality in spades

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Anthony Huso The Last PageThe Last Page by Anthony Huso

The Last Page by Anthony Huso is an exciting debut novel that, despite some rough spots here and there, delivers thrills and originality in spades, and promises great things for the future.

Caliph Howl, the main character, is described on the book’s cover as Stonehold’s “reluctant High King,” but when The Last Page starts off, Caliph is actually still the crown prince and a student of holomorphy (blood-fueled magic) at the High College of Desdae. Despite the college’s celibacy rule, he has a relationship with Sena, another student who has been trained by the Shradnae Witchocracy to use both magic and sex to advance her country’s political interests, and who is trying to unlock the secrets of a mysterious book called the Cisrim Ta. It takes a handful of chapters for Caliph to leave the college and assume the crown, giving the first 50 or so pages of the novel the feeling of an elaborate and slightly confusing prologue.

Fortunately, The Last Page gets considerably better once it moves on from the old “college of magic” storyline. As soon as Caliph moves to Isca and becomes High King, the novel becomes considerably more interesting and exciting. Caliph is dropped into a political firestorm and a brewing civil war, because not every province in his country is ready to support the former crown prince, and various factions have their own agendas to advance. As the rebelling province is an economic powerhouse that supplies most of the city’s metholinate fuel, Caliph is forced to learn the ropes quickly and establish his grasp on power, variously helped and hindered by an array of interesting characters such as a spymaster, a general, and even some former student colleagues… not to mention his old lover Sena, who soon reappears in his new life. An amusing aspect of the novel is the fact that we get to observe Caliph’s struggles not only first-hand but also via several newspaper articles, including tabloid takes on his controversial relationship with Sena.

A large part of the novel takes place in Isca City, the capital of the duchy and a fascinating metropolis with several individualized neighborhoods. Because of the city’s grimness and griminess, fans of China Mieville will probably catch strong echoes of New Crobuzon here. While Anthony Huso doesn’t have the same writing chops as Mieville (yet), the mix of fantasy, horror and steampunk elements and the general feel of The Last Page definitely reminded me of that author’s style. Very occasionally Huso tends towards the predictable, and some scenes feel unnecessarily shocking, but more often than not he finds the right balance and shows true promise for the future.

The Last Page is a very busy novel, filled with everything from zeppelins to blood magic, from steampunk-like technology to Cthulhu-esque beings from beyond. There’s a lot going on, and the amount of plot lines sometimes makes it feel as if the author just decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink into his debut: there’s a love story, a war story, the mystery of the book mentioned in the title, a lot of politics, a complex family history, various rivalries and power struggles, and a lot more. If the book at times seems a bit chaotic and overwhelming, stick with it, because Huso improbably manages to keep most of the balls in the air, and whatever doesn’t get resolved by the (thrilling) end of the novel will supposedly find closure in this two-book miniseries’ closing volume, Black Bottle.

Aside from the slightly chaotic feeling of The Last Page, the only other real issue is Huso’s annoying tendency to toss in some very forced-sounding vocabulary. A character doesn’t just say the city is almost broke, but instead says it’s “vicinal to bankruptcy.” Another character’s dry, raspy voice is described as an “exsiccated whisper.” Instead of a book, we get a “worm-eaten incunabulum.” These thesaurus-happy word choices pop up quite frequently and detract from the quality of Huso’s otherwise interesting and skilled prose. In addition, many names in the novel use non-Roman characters, mainly vowels with added diacritical signs — e.g. the Shradnae Witchocracy mentioned before actually has a dot under the first ‘a’ (and the ‘ae’ should be an ‘æ’), and the Cisrim Ta book has dots under the first ‘i’ as well as the ‘a’. While there’s a pronunciation guide in the back, most readers will probably overcome their initial confusion by just ignoring it and making up pronunciations as they go along. The Last Page would frankly have been more readable without the (pardon the expression) weird letters and obscure words. On the other hand, Huso’s use of magical glyphs is really tricky: at first it seems just a gimmick, but towards the end of the novel those glyphs suddenly become quite meaningful and truly fascinating.

Despite some weaknesses, The Last Page delivers enough originality and excitement to rank as a noteworthy debut. This is a good novel that with some more polish could have been excellent, but nonetheless promises a bright future for a new and original voice in fantasy.

The Last Page — (2010-2012) Publisher: After graduating from a prestigious college, Caliph Howl reluctantly returns to the Duchy of Stonehold and assumes his role as the country’s last living heir. But when the curtains are drawn back on the dark mechanisms of the Duchy’s capital, Caliph is appalled. Isca City flickers with blood-soaked mathematicians, underworld witches and lolling gas-lit slums. As he struggles with civil war, energy crisis and occult creatures he is initially elated when his college obsession — Sena Iilool — arrives. What he doesn’t know is that Sena has found and brought with her the Cisrym Ta, a book fabled to contain omnipotent numbers: the veritable academese of gods.  It is her agenda to unlock the book’s secrets at any cost, even if it means betraying Caliph’s trust. As the new power couple at the center of the Duchy’s greatest political storm, both Caliph and Sena are forced to grapple not only with relentless forces in the city that would see each of them dead, but with the complexities of their own relationship and the primordial peril unleashed by Sena’s obsession with the Cisrym Ta.

fantasy book reviews Anthony Huso The Last Page 2. Black Bottlefantasy book reviews Anthony Huso The Last Page 2. Black Bottle

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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