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on 25 June 2010
Four frat boys depart on a quest for immortality based on some old manuscript about a skull-worshipping cult: now, can we expect anything worthwhile from a premise so sophomoric? We can if it is Robert Silverberg writing, evidently.

With the right balance of wit, erudition, humour, and earnestness, Silverberg pulls it off. The House of Skulls exists: that is made plausible enough. And a proper dose of irony prevents this immortal-life-and-death mystery, with its Aztec and ancient symbology and mumbo jumbo, from ever veering into ridicule. Anyway, The Book of Skulls, though classified as science fiction, is actually a piece of social and private commentary. The point is in the relationship between the four students: an East Coast wasp scion, the overachieving son of poor Kansas farmers, a young Jewish New York philologist, and a flippant, gay, aspiring poet. Silverberg's desert classic is both extremely funny and penetrating, written with brio and truthfully told - and the trick of having all four main protagonists as narrators works especially well.

More than that, The Book of Skulls does not shrink from broader subjects: friendship, trust, mortality, atonement. In this sense, it belongs to a 1960s and 70s sci-fi tradition prepared to take on big themes. Think Stranger in a Strange Land, or some of Philip K Dick's novels. This is a metaphysical work. And it has a refreshing vitality, an optimism one fails to find in nowadays equivalents. It dares to be about something, unlike the shrivelled dystopias being churned out by more current authors, the meagre servings that are McCarthy's The Road, say. The Book of Skulls is not quite on a par with Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, but almost.
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on 25 October 2012
Eli, Timothy, Ned and Oliver are four students who are driving to the Arizona desert. According to a manuscript Eli found there's a sect there that can offer immortality to anyone who can complete its initiation process. However, possible members have to enter in groups of four and two of those must die in order for the other two to succeed.

This is a short, well written novel at 220 pages and the story is told alternately from the point of view of each of the students. The most interesting part of the novel for me was when they had to confess something they'd done to each other as part of the initiation.

I did enjoy reading it even though there are no big twists in the story, not sure if true SF fans would enjoy it though.
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on 11 November 2005
It's a pity this was released in the "SF Masterworks" series, as this has absolutely nothing to do with science fiction. SF freaks might be disappointed if they expect something else.
Still, this is an amazing novel. Not much happens, so this isn't for you if you are looking for an all-out adventure novel. It's an introspective story about the search for immortality, and the price people are willing to pay for it. It's also a novel about hope, morals and regrets. You get right into the minds of the four characters. Great stuff.
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on 16 April 2003
As i am sure you have read in other reviews,this is in part a liitle recognised masterpiece. A wonderfully crafted account of four students Journey into the unknown. Silverberg exersises more than subtle brilliance in his exploration of their interesting backrounds, and the way in which these affect their thoughts and motives. Subsequently, and for the most part, the book is absolutely captivating, and having read the first two thirds of the story this would probably mark the end of my review. However...
Having provided an excellent insight into the characters personalities throughout their journey, I felt that it was then time for Silverberg to dig into the expected Sci-Fi element as they reach the house of skulls. Instead he continues to pile on the tabboo, which increasingly becomes the central aspect of the storline. This, along with the graphical descriptions which are already verging on unduely disturbing, become repetetive and implausible. At the same time the caracters move from being controversial to, in my opinion implausibly outlandish. I certainly have no problem with this being a book of contemplation rather than events, but it seemingly has no climax and just wanders to a relatively twistless end. Perhaps i miss the point, probably Silverberg's subtle brilliance is beyond me. But I was not left with the great sense of revelation or enigma that i had expected.
Although this is for the most part an excellent book that will have a lasting impression on me.
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on 11 June 2000
Robert Silverbergs novel defies a rigid classification into any one genre, and I would doubt that the Sci Fi label best suits it.
It is a sprawling "road movie" type of novel following four college boys on their quest to discover the truth about the book of skulls, and about the "Skullhouse", a monastery built in the deserts of Arizona where immortality awaits those who dare its challenges and trials.
The book is part psychological thriller, part male bonding tale, as we follow the four on their quest, see how their views and opinions differ, see how they interact and perceive what lies ahead.
What really turns the tension up a notch is the discovery that for every two who are accepted into the cult and granted immortality, then two must die. Certain assumptions seem to grow within the group as to who will perish, though this is never vocalised.
As they discover that the Skullhouse exists, then it becomes a macabre, gripping ride through to the end, to see who, if any, will survive the trials, and who will fall by the wayside. You will be gripped right through to the final resolution within the final few pages.
The characterisations are strong, and you will sympathise with each in turn. I was appalled that none of them gave a great deal of thought to what they were letting themselves in for, that although they had superficially thought about who might die in the quest, none of them had really thought through the repercussions. On one level then, it is a story about being careful what you wish for, as it may come true. It is about rushing into something without thinking about the consequences.
Buy this book now. An absolute gem.
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VINE VOICEon 18 August 2007
I've occasionally been puzzled by some of the inclusions (and, indeed, omissions) from the so-called SF masterwork series. How this one made it in just baffles me.

In parts I'm prepared to grant that it is well written and constructed and I liked the use of the first-person narrative taken up by each character in turn - that's pretty much the only good thing I have to say about it. The plot is utterly ludicrous - long lost monks in the middle of the desert holding the secret to eternal life passed down from Atlantis. One is tempted to ask what's the point in eternal life if you're just going to sit around in the middle of Arizona waiting for potential acolytes to turn up every few hundred years? What do you have to do to prove your worth for this gift? A bit of weeding and boff some woman until you can satisy her before yourself! Purile rubbish that could have been lifted straight out of some horny teenager's wet dream! The characters themselves are unlikable and quite honestly I couldn't have cared less which of them gets to live forever and which don't (although it doesn't come as any surprise who does).

Given the more or less overwhelmingly positive reviews that this book has received maybe I missed something, but I don't think so. It certainly doesn't belong on any list of SF masterworks.
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on 31 May 2009
I like Silverbergs's work, and have read a number of his books, so it's somewhat disappointing that this one left me strangely unmoved. TBoS starts out well and shows great promise at the start. The writing style is deceptively straightforward, the prose clear and precise. The foundation for a fascinating mystery is well-laid. Unfortunately predictability soon sets in which gradually dilutes the story's effectiveness. As we get to know the four would-be immortals it becomes clear what the outcome will be. Although the backstories are for the most part interesting some sections feel almost superfluous and I can't help but think that this might have worked better as a pared-down novella. Despite this, however, its never dull, it's just that I was left feeling somewhat ambivalent rather than fulfilled.
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on 15 February 2001
I cannot praise this book highly enough. It is wonderful. It is about 4 college boys setting out on an adventure to find immortality. Each chapter is 'written' by one of the four characters. I was astonished by how the writing style changed from chapter to chapter, especially in the early stages of the novel when the character identities haven't fully resolved themselves. This really does read like it has been authored by four different people.
You'll be guessing about the inevitable outcome right to the end of the book.
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on 12 March 2000
A quite fascinating and unique novel. It's hard to pinpoint the exact genre - barely SF, more a fusion of fantasy and psychological thriller, with some quite heavy accents on the psychology aspects. The book is a little dullish in the first half but once our heroes discover what they are intently seeking and we learn more about their lives and their 'secrets' it really grips right through to the truly surprising and quite moving conclusion. All in all, the book holds attention throughout and certainly does not disappoint in the final analysis. A remarkable work, though not always an easy read
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on 23 November 2015
Excellent tale of 4 college students on a long road-trip into the Arizona desert in search of a cult which offers immortality. There's a catch of course. Silverberg builds the tension nicely all the way as the students approach the cult's temple... you wont want to abandon the book at this stage.
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