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Archive for January 24th, 2010


January 24th, 2010 | Category: Opinions

So, recently, I read Finch by Jeff VanderMeer. I’d had Finch on my list for a long time, but I just felt too distracted to read it. Jeff’s work is always brilliant, so I didn’t want to waste Finch. I wanted to read it in the right frame of mind. It was so worth the wait.

Finch is the third novel set in the city of Ambergris, its predecessors being City of Saints and Madmen, and Shriek: An Afterword. Each novel is very different, they don’t read like a typical “series.” City of Saints is sort of a concept novel, a collection of broadly connected short stories and historical histories that bring the lavish, dark, cruel, and ultimately beautiful dystopia that is Ambergris to life. Shriek is an intimate character study, a memoir of one family’s life as Ambergris prospers, and then crumbles around them. Finch, however, is a gritty, genre-bending, noir-style detective story. While Finch tells a story that stands on its own, I seriously recommend reading the previous novels beforehand. Reading the entire history of Ambergris first will make Finch far more compelling.

Finch takes place a century after Shriek: An Afterword, and tells the story of John Finch, a detective on a case that could very easily kill him. Ambergris is a city in torment, a city breathing its last breath. occupied by a race of very hostile beings known as, Gray Caps. The Gray Caps are a race of mushroom people. They’re walking, talking, mushroom-like humanoids. Gray Caps are around three feet tall, dressing in grayish robes, donning gray wide-brimmed felt hats on their heads. They live underground, forced there through mass-genocide thousands of years ago during the founding of Ambergris. The mass killings do not endear humans to the Gray Caps, not one bit. So, they wait underground, they wait until Ambergris is mired in civil war, then they Rise. During the Rising, the Gray Caps use tunnels to flood much of the city, creating an artificial bay that’s fed by the River Moth, killing thousands. A rebel army existed, but the Gray Caps lead them into a trap during a tactical retreat, sealing them within a massive cloud of spores. The rebel army is never seen again. Gray Cap weapons are all biological, spore-based. A cloud of spores can turn a human body to nothing but a spray of blood scattered in the wind. The rest of the world abandons Ambergris, not wanting any part of a war against an obviously deadly and mysterious race of beings.

Ambergisian citizens are forced into work camps, building mysterious towers on an island in the bay. Some citizens work “voluntarily” for the Gray Caps, avoiding the camps, maybe doing some good. John Finch is one of those citizens, a detective. His story takes place six years after the Rising. He’s called by his Gray Cap handler to investigate a possible double murder. Two bodies in a dreary apartment, a man, seemingly uninjured, and a Gray Cap with both legs severed, both bodies completely unidentified. This is Finch’s case, and when one works for the Gray Caps, they can’t just call in sick. Failure equals uselessness, uselessness equals death. Pounding the pavement, asking questions, those things can get a fellow killed in Ambergris, but Finch has to solve this case. Possible death versus guaranteed death. It’s not much of a choice, but Ambergris is an entire city of few choices.

Finch is a fast-paced novel, written in punchy, short sentences. Not one word is unnecessary, nor does VanderMeer waste any words. A lesser writer would have botched trying to write in such a tight style, but VanderMeer is genuinely a master of his craft. He knows how to use words to create exactly what he wants to create. Generally, I don’t like crime novels, detective stories. They never really suck me in. Finch, however, is different. Yes, it’s a detective story, guys with badges, guns. Finch is trying to solve a case, searching for clues, talking to leads. Finch has a sultry lover, a mysterious woman with many secrets. These are all elements of a typical crime novel. Things that are usually dull to me. However, this is a crime novel set in Ambergris, a psychotic, dirty, lush, always dying, yet utterly alive city where anything can happen. VanderMeer is also a master of characterization. Finch’s characters are real people, with loves, desires, families, but they’re trying to live their normal lives in the most bizarre situation imaginable. It’s the reality amongst so much surrealism that makes this novel such a fantastic read.