Well. I have to say that it is really nice to be able to write a positive, if not positively raving, review.
But first, caveats & etceteras.
My review is based on an ARC so, as the saying goes, some things may have been changed to protect the innocent.
I also feel compelled to say a little something about the fact that Jeff has been pigeonholed as a "fantasy" author and I've said things on this blog that would tend to lead one to believe that I'm not at all that fond of fantasy. This particular novel has not tested my tastes, as it is most decidedly not a "fantasy" novel.
What kind of novel it is will be up to the individual reader (the book crosses so many lines that they've blurred - actually, they've almost disappeared - and created something entirely ungenre/allgenre at once. Words like pastiche or amalgam don't serve as they suggest a disorganized assemblage and Finch is obviously a highly-crafted work) but it may also be one of those works that we look back on and say "a-ha! here is a piece that presages the breakdown of literary divisions. It was shortly after this appeared that bookstores stopped labeling their aisles and shelves."
I've also said relatively unkind words about the concept of "literary" fiction (I've asked more than once for a real definition which has never been offered. I've explained that my view of it is fiction who's importance lays in wordplay and cleverness far more than it does in story. In many respects an activity not unlike a child demonstrating that they can ride their bicycle without using hands and showing off for their mother. Clever yes, but you shouldn't oughta do that.) Jeff has also been billed as a "literary" writer.
In this, the labelers may be correct, but only insofar as the definition of "literary" refers to someone who can craft a novel that has multiple, smoothly interplaying levels, chooses words deliberately and for effect, not simply because they haven't been seen on the printed page in a century, selects a form of presentation that is designed to enhance rather than serve as mere affectation - while retaining a story that has a recognizable beginning, middle and end, characters that have depth but aren't riddled with numerous complex and nearly indecipherable relationships. And throws in 'big ideas' that are fresh, complex and intriguing.
My only real problem with the novel is that it is presented as a stand-alone story - which it certainly is so far as the story itself goes. However, it is built upon what is obviously a fairly developed world and I felt my lack of previous experience with Ambergris on nearly every page. Though not in a negative way. I found myself thinking that the whole story, individual scenes, chapters, characters, places would probably be even more interesting, vibrant and deep if I had read the previous stories before reading this one.
I suspect that most folks who do start out on their Ambergrisian adventures with Finch (and there's absolutely no reason not to) will shortly be picking up the rest of these works.
What is Finch? At its core it is two things: a noir, Chandler style mystery (complete with private eyes that get beat up in every other scene, mysterious women who hold the keys to all of the answers, good cops, bad cops, good mobsters and bad mobsters) and a metaphor for life, the universe and everything.
It is also part mystery, part science fiction, part historical fiction, part fantasy, part horror and probably any other genre you'd care to think up.
In brief summary for those not familiar with Ambergris: a city-state (Ambergris) is engaged in civil war when the 'graycaps' appear during an event called the "rising" (the graycaps invade from underground). The graycaps are fungal creatures who bring with them fungal weapons, fungal technologies and fungy ways of doing things. A resistance is formed to fight the invaders. By the time of Finch, the resistance has been driven into the hills, the city is occupied (and its people are suffering), life has gotten uneasy as folks try to find ways to cope - some cooperating fully, some to get along, others for their own ends. Meanwhile, the graycaps are engaged in their own mysterious projects, the possible and unknown results of which make nearly everyone uneasy. (My apologies if this summary is off a bit as it is based upon what I have gleaned from Finch.)
Into this sad and decaying situation comes Finch, a reluctant police detective (appointed to the position by the graycaps as part of the human caretaker government), a man with a shady past and divided loyalties.
Finch is presented with a case by his graycap overseer. Two bodies lay in the middle of an apartment floor, one a dead man, the other half of a graycap.
For some initially obscure reason, the case is important to the graycaps, seems to be tied into their construction project (two gigantic towers that seem to be consuming nearly all graycap attention).
Investigating the deaths leads Finch on a merry rollercoaster ride through nearly all of the factions, secrets, hidden goals and mysterious relationships of the rebels, the graycaps, the 'partials', the spy networks and Finch's past.
The feel of Ambergris is deathly in all of its squamous forms - death and decay in process rather than an accomplished fact, like watchinga high speed film of maggots consuming a mouse carcass, presented in anything but high speed. During the initial two thirds of the book, the pace is slowed down enough so that you miss not a single bit of wet, squelchy, moldy, furry, stringy, cobwebs in the face detail. At one point Finch shakes hands with a man who has been 'colonized' by various graycap fungi and describes the feeling as 'meat stuffed into a bag of wet leaves', an image that has stuck with me well after completing the tale and one that is representative of the world Finch moves through and of VanderMeer's descriptive narrative throughout the novel. (Just to be clear, the pacing of the novel is excellent as it gradually speeds up towards a breathtaking conclusion.)
The book shoves your face into places and things you'd be reluctant to touch with a stick even while wearing a full environmental suit. Morbid fascination will draw you on to more and worse of the same.
The graycaps and their fungal-based society/technology is a unique presentation (though Piers Anthony dealt with some of the same concepts in Omnivore in a somewhat thematically similar manner) and a fascinating one. In reality our funeral rituals ought to include the line 'from ashes to ashes, dust to dust and fungi to fungi', as the world itself runs on and is dependent upon this normally overlooked third form of life. Fungal life is responsible for returning otherwise unusable material to the ecosystem and could be described as a life form that has specialized in death and decay. Fungus in its many different forms is the true recycler of the ecosystem.
VanderMeer has elevated the fungal form to dominance and shown us a world in which the breakdown of everything is the normal course of events. Fungas and its life stages are a wonderful meta-metaphor for the world we actually live in; everything does eventually break down, solidity occurs only in passing, connectedness and order are fleeting, temporary concepts. Change happens and we are almost powerless to prevent it. Trying to hold fast has one set of consequences. Trying to accommodate it has others - but in the end we all pretty much wind up at the same place. Colonized, consumed, broken down and absorbed into the zeitgeist.
If Finch possesses a higher message, it is that we do the things we do despite, and in spite of, our inevitable end. The things we do may have importance only to us, but they give us meaning and purpose and, in doing them, we may give meaning and purpose to others.
But you can easily ignore the hoity-toity "higher meanings" with Finch if you'd rather just enjoy a crime drama-science fiction-historical-fantasy-romance novel (yes, Jeff even manages to squeeze some romance in here), delve into one of the strangest and most unique worlds going today in genre fiction and participate in the genesis of the no-genre literary genre field.
What did you think of this review?