Received my copy of Finch from Jeff VanderMeer’s own hands at his reading at Manuel’s Tavern(‘s beer storage closet — a story in itself) Friday evening and read it in as close to one sitting as is possible in a house full of kids and livestock and snap-together model emergencies and such.

It’s the third (and likely final, at least chronologically) book in the Ambergris Cycle, set in a town (named after essence of whale vomit) whose complete history we get to traverse through the stories in this cycle. It should be noted that I haven’t had a chance to read the middle volume, Shriek: An Afterword, but I have read City of Saints and Madmen more than a couple of times.

Each volume is quite a bit different in the map it draws. The first is quite playfully historical in its approach, creating a wealth of interlocking characters and companies and elements that would be passive furniture in anyone else’s hands. The second I won’t comment much on, not having read it yet, but is a matched set of dueling narratives from a brother and sister team, somewhat at cross purposes. The third is blatantly mid-40s noir, set in an occupied echo of Paris, complete with Vichyesque collaborators — except the occupying force is a colony of sentient fungi. More on that in a moment.

Given the city of Ambergris and the twisted story of its timeline, I’ve no choice but to be reminded of Tanith Lee’s Secret Books of Paradys series. Lee writes consistently darker myths surrounding her fabled city in a more consistent style, but all of the tales in this series also tangle around a single city and it’s tangled histories and parallels. She lacks VanderMeer’s flair for the absurd and (overaccused to the point I suspect he’s truly tired of it) kink for squid and mushrooms. Lee takes the path of fantasy/horror more often while VanderMeer stays true to a form of historically flavored SF with the fungus creatures having their own alien biologically based technology — but I argue that kind of distinction really isn’t any kind of important distinction these days. The bookstores have been shelving the speculative stuff all in one lump for a couple of decades now, with occasional escapees from the genre ghetto to “true literature”.

The only criteria I’ve used in my own book-buying has ever been, “Is the story worth the money?” And the answer here is, yes, yes, VanderMeer’s stories are worth the money.

VanderMeer nails noir in Finch. The characters are gripping and variably textured and intriguingly flawed. The odds are overwhelmingly stacked. Women are perilous and have their own goals. Bullets and booze are readily available and never solve anything. Grim determination and endurance is way more useful a trait than Holmesian problem-solving ability, and everybody who can help is playing for a different team which would, for preference, crush a snoop like a cockroach. But this is set in Ambergris, a city long torn apart by warring merchant princes and, because this is just that kind of world, suffering from a soon-to-be-fatal sentient Cordyceps infection.

The absurdity is greeted head-on, without flinching, and no snickers out of the corner of the mouth. You get the dreamlike feel of Cronenberg directing a film adaptation of a William S. Burroughs novel. It can be funny, but you can only laugh when you come up for air and break out of the mindset, cowering in the safety of the real world. But then you have to consider, this is a real world where Cordyceps exists. And Toxoplasma gondii. And Wolbachia. And Spinochordodes tellinii. It’s really just not that infeasible that we may eventually run across some spore in a jungle somewhere that changes everything for us forever. Someday.

Evil domineering squid might seem a bit more of a stretch, but the oceans are really really large and very deep, and we haven’t explored a tenth of the volume yet.

Finch covers a huge amount of territory, story- and flavor-wise. The crossovers in genre produce a novel favorable to the union of the sets, not the intersection. If you like noir, you’ll like Finch. If you like absurdist stories taken seriously, you’ll like Finch. If you like your SF historical and culturally rich, you’ll like Finch. It’s not like if you just like one you’ll have to put up with the rest. The flavors mix and blend to make a brilliant, meaty stew that is anything but your usual comfort chow.

I will probably be reading it again tomorrow.


December 13, 2009 · Posted in reviews