13 Jul 2009
by Jeffrey Thomas
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In 2001, Jeff VanderMeer saw his book CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN released, with expanded editions in 2002 and 2004. To call it a mere collection is not only insufficient, but a disservice. This book of short stories, a mock essay about a squid festival, a mock case study of a man known only as “X,”a mock historical pamphlet, and so much more, is an explosion of exuberant imagination and bold literary inventiveness contained between two covers (actually, even running over onto the covers themselves). What all its components have in common is the fictional city of Ambergris – formerly a city called Cinsorium, inhabited by enigmatic little humanoids called “gray caps.” The abovementioned historical pamphlet, a novella called “The Early History of Ambergris,” details the arrival of the humans who would found Ambergris, drive the gray caps belowground, and themselves later almost entirely disappear overnight (ala the Roanoke colony) in a mysterious event known as “the Silence,” precipitated by the vengeful gray caps. This is one of the most unsettling stories I’ve ever read, and since reading it I have waited to find out more about these ominous gray caps. VanderMeer hinted further at the mysteries below Ambergris in his 2006 novel SHRIEK: AN AFTERWORD, but now with his third Ambergris book, FINCH, all my hopes and expectations along these lines have been fulfilled, and then some.
FINCH starts off under the guise of a detective novel, but like its protagonist John Finch – and indeed, so many of its characters – it is much more than that below the surface. Much like Ambergris itself.
It is many years into Ambergris’ future, and the gray caps have resumed control, the city now flooded and moldering with the fungus and spores the gray caps beget and even command as weapons. Finch, forced to work for these eerie beings, is a police detective called upon to solve the mystery of a dead human and a dead gray cap, the latter missing its lower half, found together in a dingy apartment. Finch is like Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian detective Arkady Renko, given a thankless task by untrustworthy bosses, and like Smith’s novels, FINCH starts to become as much a spy-type thriller as detective story, as rebels bent on overthrowing the gray caps come into the picture. I can’t go much further into the plot than this, for fear of giving too much away, but suffice it to say that every character seems to have either overlapping identities, overlapping agendas, or even to be an overlapping human/fungal fusion, in a city being swallowed and transfigured by its overlapping histories – past, present and future.
As I say, the novel is as multilayered and complex as the city and its denizens, without ever letting up its fast-paced drama and action. FINCH blends the detective novel with science fiction, horror, and even the surreal, melding them into an organic whole. Ambergris is a physically palpable setting – we can smell its rot, feel its dankness – and the fear and danger in its streets is just as palpable. The general atmosphere is oppressive, the violence grueling. Gone are VanderMeer’s customary touches of humor, but this is an observation rather than criticism. We are given much more of the gray caps, but not so much as to make us jaded with them or lessen their sinister mysteriousness. It is because of them that FINCH is the scariest novel I’ve read in years. One of the best novels I’ve read in some time, period. Though it follows a much more linear, seemingly conventional narrative track than VanderMeer’s earlier two Ambergris books, and his unrelated novel VENISS UNDERGROUND, that’s an artful illusion. The narrative stream has hidden currents, and hidden caverns, and this reader was thoroughly swept away.
FINCH will appear in November from Underland Press, and I should point out that its stunning cover artwork is by John Coulthart.
Pre-order Finch from Amazon.com.