First published in Britain in 1996, Voice Of The Fire has long been billed as the first novel by groundbreaking comic-book writer Alan Moore, but it reads more like an anthology of short stories. The first chapter opens in 4,000 B.C., the last is set in 1995, and the 10 in between cover the intervening space, but while they all take place on the patch of Britain that became Northampton, and most of them touch on key themes and recurring images (shamanism, fire, crippled limbs, mythical creatures, and the alterations time brings to language, myths, memory, and human endeavors), each chapter tells its own standalone tale. The first story, "Hob's Hog," is both the book's most fascinating installment and its most difficult; told from the first-person perspective of a boy from a "walking-people" tribe who cast him out to starve when his mother dies, the story is written in a simple, present-tense pidgin, portraying the perspective of someone with limited language and even more limited understanding of himself and his world. "Set I on neath-more log, there flatting grass in low of hill, and make hot waters out I's face," the narrator says in a typical sentence, which needs to be decoded as much as read. But "Hob's Hog" is more than a mannerist experiment in language–it's also a sad story of loneliness and betrayal, as well as a record of a key event that's remembered in later stories in increasingly abstract ways. Those later stories are told in a much more conventional style, though Moore alters the language and tone in each case to bring his characters across, in ways he doubtless honed while writing classic, dialogue-driven comics series like Watchmen and V For Vendetta. His many-layered, symbolism-intensive comics style also shows through in his prose writing, which is packed with big ideas about millennia-spanning drifts in human history, language, conceptualization, storytelling, and religion. But he doesn't let those ideas get in the way of his solid, entertaining yarns, which center on characters ranging from a Roman treasury investigator to a pair of lovers burned for witchcraft in 1705 to a 20th-century suspender salesman to Moore himself. Some of those characters are more compelling than others–"Confessions Of A Mask," a story told from the perspective of a months-rotten severed head, has a particularly difficult time overcoming its own strained and static premise–but the links holding them all together support the weaker segments while adding solidity to the stronger ones. Part mythic cycle, part fictional history of Moore's hometown, part collection of fireside ghost stories, Voice Of The Fire is as clever and well-crafted as Moore's other genre experiments, and by taking his dialogue out of word-balloons and panel arrangements, it gives his limitless literary ambition room to stretch out into new and fascinating forms.

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