- Genre: Fantasy / New Weird
- Series: Ambergris, part 3. Can be read as standalone, but not recommended.
- Pages: 339
- My rating: 8.5/10
“Forget it, Jake. It’s mushroom-town.”
I’ll sketch the background of this novel quickly, just to introduce, because it needs quite an introduction. Finch is a detective and this is a noir mystery story. It’s told in terse, noir-like narration and has a grim atmosphere. Finch lives in Ambergris, a city that is shared between humans and mushroom-people, called gray caps. The gray caps live underground, but six years before the start of the story they rose up and now control the city like conquerors. Fungus grows everywhere now, and the prevailing descriptions of the city are damp, moist and clammy. Finch is called to investigate a double murder of a man and a gray cap lying next to him, and he enters a world of spore-laden mystery.
The mushroom-men are nothing to laugh about. This is more like a horror story; something from an H.P. Lovecraft collection. The gray caps are a Gestapo who keep an iron grip on the city, and anything might be an excuse to transport people to camps or kill them. Gray caps are disturbing, with repugnantly cold, moist bodies and inscrutable behavior. And anything can happen on the streets. Giant mushrooms excrete drugs; dead bodies might explore in spore clouds… It is so grim that Ambergris feels like a giant depressing prison.
Ambergris with its mushroom-people sounds a bit like a city that we’ve heard before. After author China Mieville wrote some pretty great novels featuring insect people, cactus people and more (Perdido Street Station, The Scar) and achieved great critical success this way, he inspired a host of new writers to go completely crazy with their imagination. Jeff VanderMeer proclaimed that Mieville was a frontrunner of a new subgenre named New Weird fiction, and proceeded to write novels in the same vein, of which Finch is one. VanderMeer constructed stories around a strange city named Ambergris, probably influenced by Mieville’s New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station.
You could call VanderMeer’s Ambergris novels a knock-off of Mieville’s fiction, but that sounds so mean. Jeff VanderMeer can easily hold his own when it comes to writing, and he distinguishes himself by using a sort of meta-fictional approach by using short stories, notes, letters, vignettes and appendices to construct his fantasy world. Finch is one of a few novel-length approaches to the Ambergris universe. Can you read it as a stand-alone without having read VanderMeer’s previous work? Many people who’ve read all of his books say no, you can’t, but I did it anyway. And I loved it.
But they were right. I mean, the story is nicely self-contained, but some characters from the previous books show up and we get revelations about them. The previous book, Shriek; An Afterword, even turns up in the hands of Finch. I guess the book’s more powerful if you read the other ones first.
The learning curve for entering this universe is steep. VanderMeer dives deep into the fungal element and there is a lot to learn for a newcomer. He creates a biopunk version of it where fungi perform technological roles that could as easily be found in a science fiction novel about alien worlds and genetic engineering. Even if you’ve read the earlier books, VanderMeer writes in a way that needs your concentration, because the plot moves fast and there are lots of details to remember. The lines come fast and sharp, in an economical way.
Finch could have been more interesting as a main character. A wry sense of humor would have helped to make him more engaging and also to relieve the constant sense of dread and paranoia that makes the story very heavy to read. This is alleviated by a very impressive, tight plotting. Finch is constantly in danger. Half of the time you have no idea where this is all going, but you want to know more. A tightly knit plot weaves multiple storylines and side stories into an entangled rollercoaster of events.
I’m starting to become a fan of Jeff VanderMeer. Now I need to read the other Ambergris novels.