Review by Paul Melko
Having started reading science fiction in the late seventies, I sometimes feel I don't have enough of a grounding in the classical SF authors. Sure, I went through all the Heinleins and the works of my personal favorite author, Philip Jose Farmer. But there are a bevy of older authors I know very little of. One of these is Silverberg, of whose work I have only sampled the popular Lord Valentine's Castle, and the sequels that I could stomach. To remedy my lack of exposure to the masters, I chose to read and review some of the classics in the field. My next few reviews will deal with novels taken from Gardner Dozois' recommended reading list on the SFWA homepage.
The Book of Skulls was originally published in 1972 (when I was 4 years old!) and is heavily ensnared in the culture of the time. It is not a plot-oriented book; the plot is a quite straight-forward quest set in the then-modern 70's. No, the book's strength is its superb characterization. Written as first person narrative, alternating through the points of view of the four main characters, the story allows the reader to come to know each of the story's characters intimately. The characters are incredibly alive and vigorous. Even after reading it weeks ago, I could describe each of the four characters in the novel in detail.
I am surprised that Silverberg succeeds with this four pointed point of view diary style. But he does, and this is a tribute to his ability to make four unique and individual characters: Eli, the intellectual geekish thinker, stuck upon his own sexual development; Ned, the sulking, cynical homosexual; Timothy, Waspy rich man's son; and Oliver, clean-cut boy from Kansas, jock and pre-med student. Even though I can sum their lives up with these stereotypes, it is Silverburg's characterization that makes the four dynamic.
The quest plot centers around the search for immortality. Eli has found reference to a book called the Book of Skulls, where in is detailed the method for immortality: a group of four must journey to the House of Skulls. One of the questers must be killed by the group, and one must die of his own hand so that the other two will have immortality. This leads the four on a spring break quest to find the House, located somewhere in Arizona.
The most distracting drawback of this book is its treatment of women. The four male main characters are somewhat misogynistic, even the sexually repressed Eli. And the monks at the House of Skulls are all male. The females present are merely used as objects of sexual release. Perhaps this is endemic of the times in which the book was published, but nonetheless, the sexism of the tale is quite obvious.
The story concludes with revelation and surprise. To gain the thing they each want, they must reveal to each other their hidden secrets, reveal to themselves their fears. These revelations are what the book has built up to, these most horrible things that each has done. And it works because these characters are so real, drawn by Silverberg piece by piece on this cross-country trip.
The Book of Skulls is a classic to be read. It may not be timeless in all its aspects, but its devices of style are flawless.
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