Thursday 15 July 2010

Book Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

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"Tasked with solving an impossible double murder, detective John Finch searches for the truth among the rubble of the once-mighty city of Ambergris. Under the rule of the mysterious gray caps, Ambergris is falling into anarchy. The remnants of a rebel force are demoralised and dispersed, their leader, the Lady in Blue, not seen for months. Partials - human traitors transformed by the gray caps - walk the streets brutalising the city's inhabitants. Finch's partner Wyte, stricken with a fungal disease, is literally disintegrating. And strange forces are marshaling themselves against detective Finch even as he pursues his one clue: the elusive spymaster Ethan Bliss. How much time does Finch have before time itself runs out?"


At long last: Finch. Nearly a year since its publication in the States, the Locus nominee has come to bookstores closer to home, courtesy of stellar new Atlantic Books imprint Corvus. I don't often dwell on something so tertiary as cover art in my reviews, but the original Underland Press edition came adorned with a truly remarkable piece of work by John Coulthart at once spectacular and stark - a startling and indeed award-winning composition that perfectly captured the fungal wonders of the city of Ambergris a century after the events of Shriek: An Afterword. A new edition means a new cover, of course, and it gives me great pleasure to say the new art nearly equals the darkly fantastic charm of the old. Corvus have traded Finch's grimy noir looks for a hallucinatory fusion of colour that brings David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to mind, with fiery organic pinks set against the faded blues of the industry the grey caps have overpowered. The gorgeous cover is but the first thing about Finch that will take your breath away; far, far from the last.

Six years ago, the gray caps swallowed an Ambergris already decimated by decades of petty civil strife. With the city weakened and its people hopelessly divided, the mushroom monstrosities that had colonised the cave systems beneath the great state rose up to rule over the citizens. Now, those who survived through the unspeakable horrors of The Rising live in a state of perpetual paranoia: there is something for them to fear around every corner, some terrible consequence of the fungal invasion on every street, every building, every person.

Ambergris has become a vibrant city of red, green and gold; purplish hues and dirty spatters of all the lurid shades of an artist's palette have infiltrated its every aspect in spore form. Certainly it's a more colourful locale than one might recall from City of Saints and Madmen, but for all that the urban landscape has been enlivened as a perverse by-product of the grey caps' attack, The Rising has also leeched the life from the once bustling metropolis of Ambergris. The ruined city detectives Finch and Wyte once swore to protect no longer takes much notice of a missing person, another moldering body. There is little in the way of law left for them to uphold, and no order but that which the grey caps impose for their own ominous purpose.

Finch has as its primary narrative thrust the titular detective's investigation into two dead bodies in a seedy apartment: a man and half of a dismembered mushroom who have looked mortality in the eye and found themselves unequal to its awful answer. It's not long, however, before Finch finds out that there is a much greater mystery afoot, and his subsequent discoveries soon come to threaten everything he holds dear. His lover and his life, his friends and his family are all at stake; and of course, his city, Ambergris entire.

As per usual, World Fantasy Award-winner Jeff Vandermeer spins a terrific yarn. There's a sense of inevitability to everything Finch sees, says and does, an inexorable forward motion that sustains the narrative all the way through to its brilliant cosmic climax. Few characters beyond the protagonist and his increasingly fungal father-figure Wyte are explored to any great extent, but many of those who appear only occasionally are able nevertheless to haunt the text in an extraordinary sense. Rathven, the enigmatic photographer, Heretic and one particularly sickening partial often lurk between the lines - even in their absence.

Singularly the most memorable character of Finch, however, is Ambergris itself. While I found the city struggling to establish a clear identity in Vandermeer's previous fiction, it is much changed in Finch, and the change has rendered it a spectacular marvel of wonder and horror.

Some readers will be disoriented by Vandermeer's sparse, clipped prose, but once they're able to acclimatise to its unusual, article-less rhythm and flow, Finch becomes an unforgettable experience akin to a darkly lucid dream. As one abrupt sentence follows another you come to realise that the curious, not quite stream-of-consciousness narration represents the disconnection between detective Finch and his city, the hard line he has drawn between his past and the terrible reality of the present. Furthermore, it emphasizes the isolation of Ambergris itself from the world surrounding it.

Vandermeer's distinctive storytelling device will surely discourage many attempts to summit the great narrative heights Finch eventually scales, but this is a novel made greater by the effort you must expend to fully appreciate it. It is assuredly the best of the three tales of Ambergris Vandermeer has told to date - high praise in itself - and despite a few unfortunate call-backs to the events of Shriek: An Afterword, this twisting hallucinatory fusion of tropes and traits stands well enough on its own that readers interested in any species of great genre fiction will find much about Finch to love.


by Jeff Vandermeer
August 2010, Corvus

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  1. While the book can stand perfectly well on its own, I do not think I would ever recommend it be read as such. There is a lot to link it to the previous two books--mostly Shriek: An Afterword, but The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of the City of Ambergris from City of Saints and Madmen especially. Part of what made reading Finch so enjoyable to me was being able to notice those references.

    Well, that, and this may well be the best of the lot, but I would not suggest skipping the previous two books, which are wonderful and weird in their own right.

    Still, a good review of a fantastic book. If it gets people to read more VanderMeer, I am not particularly concerned about them not reading the others first.

  2. I think that a large part of why Finch's desolation of setting was so effective is how vibrant the city seemed in City of Saints and Madmen/Shriek, though it would still certainly work on its own.

  3. I'll look for the previous books, as I've not read Vandermeer.

  4. I don't know, James. I've struggled with Jeff's work in the past. I've read damn near all of his novels, knowing that by all rights I should love them that much more than I do, but it wasn't till Finch that I truly fell for Ambergris.

    Perhaps, as you and the hat of wanton evilness are saying, the wrecked city of Finch is only so effective because of how changed it is - and how to measure the depth and impact of that change unless you've spent time in Ambergris before? I don't suppose I would recommend people start reading Jeff Vandermeer from here either, but if they start here or they don't start at all, I'd rather they picked up Finch than not. It's really something.

  5. That's the thing about tastes, though. I jumped into Ambgergris from Shriek: An Afterword and fell in love with it and VanderMeer's writing. I have not had the trouble you've experienced with Jeff's writing and because of that, I am much more likely to recommend that new readers start from the beginning.

    Since you really only fell for Ambergris with Finch, I I understand exactly why you would recommend starting from there. And, to be honest, I would probably say that Finch is the most accessible of the books, so starting there is probably a good idea.

    But, I agree with you: I would much rather they pick up VanderMeer's books than not, no matter where they start.

  6. My first Ambergris novel was City of Saints and Madmen, and I consider that one of my all time favorites, but I don't think that the starting point really is everything, after a bit more thinking about it. The series feels more like a large jigsaw puzzle than a true arc. Ambergris is a complex place, and you get different parts from different books. If you start with Finch, you'd definitely have a different picture of the city, but it wouldn't necessarily be an inferior one.

  7. I can agree with that, oh fiendish headgear. However, I think my overall concern is for those that might make Finch their starting point and, since it is the third book in the (rather loose) series, their ending point.

    This is coming from someone who is in the middle of convincing someone who started at Finch to go back in the series and at least read Shriek: An Afterword. Something that is proving difficult to do.

  8. Arrghh! I've ordered Finch based on your review, Niall, but now with these comments I don't know whether to read it or wait until I pick up the other two Ambergris novels first.... Oh well, I'll have plenty of time to think it over with having just started Anathem by Stephenson and that is a masive book which will take me a while!

  9. Pleased to hear it, Marduk! Be sure to enjoy the hell out of Finch now - whether you start there or go back. I'm pushing through a massive book myself: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, a 1000+ page tome which I'm enjoying the hell out of, but by God would I like to be reading something else already. Big books are not for me, generally speaking, though with that and The Passage in the last month alone, I seem to be going against my own preferences.

    As they say: facepalm. :)