Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lana Reviews: The Book of Skulls - Robert Silverberg

Deciding to do Worlds Without End’s 2014 Masterworks Challenge, and not having my own book blog for posting reviews (I do not really do reviews so I have never really needed one,) Val here kindly offered that I could post my reviews on his blog. Hopefully there will be at least six of them during 2014, since else, I will lose the challenge! 

Online I call myself Lana; I was born in 1981, and while I live in the Netherlands now, I am quite Norwegian. I love to read, although all the forced reading I did at the university for many years kind of took the pleasure out of it for a while. I prefer fantasy I guess, authors like Anne Bishop and Robert Jordan have been read and reread over the years, but I have read a few classics too (my bachelor is in English Literature,) and lately, I have added a lot more science fiction to my ‘have read’ list. I especially enjoy Nancy Kress and in particular her short story fiction. 

 As I hinted at above, I do not typically do reviews. I might very well focus on the wrong things and completely miss the big picture, but I’ll do my best to write honest and informative pieces without spoiling too much of whichever book I’m reviewing at the time. My aim is simply to complete the challenge I’ve signed up for. It shall be fun, I’m sure!

Robert Silverberg’s The Book of Skulls (1972) is a story about the journey taken by four young men after one of them finds an old manuscript that promises its reader eternal life. Not only does their search for immortality take us across the United States of America, but also through their minds, their past, and the past of the world itself. When Silverberg wrote this book, he had already produced countless novels and short stories; science fiction as well as other genres. Still, for someone who has read as little science fiction as I have, this is not what I would typically think of when I think of that genre. There are no aliens, no spaceships, and no futuristic tools or machinery; there is only the promise of immortality. This promise, and the criteria for achieving it, however, was what caught my interest and why I chose to pick up this book.

When we meet the four main characters, all in their early twenties, they have already left the college they attend together in New England and started their journey south-west in search of a secretive sect living in Arizona; the sect they believe once wrote the manuscript they have recently found. They also already know that in order for two of them to attain eternal life, the manuscript says that two of them must die. As they make their way from city to city and from state to state, we get many glimpses into their thoughts and feelings, Silverberg using this time to build up their personalities and backgrounds by writing first person chapters from the different characters’ points of view. And when they reach their goal, a different journey begins, revealing that what we have learnt so far might only be a part of the whole, and that nothing is ever quite what it seems.

Silverberg has created four different characters with four relatively different backgrounds for his story, however, none of them comes across as very likable and I never felt sad about the prospect that two of them might have to die before the end. This made the story a bit poor to me, as, to truly enjoy a book I need to care a bit more about the characters I read about.

Another thing I noticed as I worked my way through these young men’s heads was all the knowledge they seemed to be in possession of at any given time, and all the big words they knew and always were in complete control of how to use. Granted, they are supposed to be students and students are supposed to be knowledgeable, plus things might have been different back then compared to when I attended university and all knowledge was a Google-search away, but I have never met one person that age carrying that much and diverse knowledge around in his or her head. In fact, the further I read, the more I felt as if the author himself, through his characters, was showing off his own wealth of knowledge, and in that way only managed to make his characters more unrealistic, less real.

I also had an issue with how female characters were written and described in this book. Again, it might have something to do with differences between the time during which this story takes place, and the time I grew up in. Or perhaps it is a difference between the author’s country of birth and my own. Might even be that being a woman, I do not truly know how males that age really think about women – maybe it simply is as crude and contemptuous as Silverberg implies.

While The Book of Skulls might not be my new favorite book, or the best book I have ever read, one can tell that the author has put a lot of thought into his story, and he certainly tells a tale that one wants to know how ends. In spite of big words and longwinded monologues of self-reflection and existentialism, it is not a particularly difficult read either. There were a lot of little things that I didn’t like that much about it, but the main idea; the search for immortality, and four friends choosing to go ahead with that search although knowing from the start that two of them might perish before the search is over, was one that I found quite appealing. So while I might have a lot of issues with how Silverberg chose to tell his story, I still think it is worth the read and would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a thoughtful story surrounding the search for eternal life.  

Book Details
Title: The Book of Skulls
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 222  
Year: 2004
Language: English
Format: Mass market paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-914-4  
First published: 1972

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