Robert Silverberg, The Book of Skulls (Scribner’s, 1972)
[originally posted 19Jan2001]
I’ve never been a big fan of Robert Silverberg’s work. I think it may be because Silverberg, much like Bradbury and Heinlein, is often shuffled off to the young adult section of the library and happened upon by third- and fourth-graders looking for something to read that will make them look adult. I’ve finally picked up a Silverberg novel for the first time since reaching puberty, and The Book of Skulls has verily shown me the error of my ways.
It’s a pretty standard fantasy plot; a scholar in medieval studies finds an overlooked tome in the University stacks, the Book of Skulls. Translating it, he finds that it’s a handbook for eternal life. By eerie coincidence, he just happened to read a story about a monastery in Arizona that sounds a lot like what the authors of this book would be, had they migrated from, say, Catalan to Peru to Arizona, and he convinces his three roommates that the four of them should travel to Arizona over Easter break to check this out, and possibly end up living forever. There’s only one catch: of the four who go, two will lose their lives in order for the others to live eternally.
Silverberg infuses the plot with freshness by doing what his readers will do anyway; he carries the “what if?” game as far as he can with each thread of the story, thinking up even the silliest what-if questions and having his four narrators (who tell the story from four points of view, POVs switching with chapters) play the scenarios out in their heads. He manages to do this while still leaving enough room to develop the chemistry between the characters, and also manages to throw in a kink here and there that his four haven’t thought of.
It’s all quite well put together, with the exception of one plot point that seems to have been added towards the end of the book’s planning. But by the time you get there, you’re already captivated enough that the rather glaring artificiality means less than it normally would. I’m glad I gave Silverberg another chance, and I’ll be reading more of his work in the future. ****