Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer, is an intricate, immersive fantasy novel with grace notes of detective noir and even espionage thriller. VanderMeer’s setting, the city of Ambergris, is one he is very familiar with and he uses specific detail to paint the city, decaying rapidly under the assault of its fungal overlords, vividly for the reader.
John Finch was not born with that name, nor is he a detective by training. Heretic, the “gray cap” or fungus-based life form to whom Finch reports, has given him the title of detective and, as the book opens, the assignment of solving a locked-room murder mystery. There are two dead victims, one human and one gray cap.
VanderMeer fully embraces the tropes of noir. There is the compromised partner, the corrupt government, the femme fatale, the brutal crime boss who resents the detective’s questions, and a man or woman of mystery (Finch has one of each). There is also a truly alien race, fully-realized and well-detailed, that has subjugated the human population of Ambergris. As the story develops, Finch must face some personal mysteries as well, specifically the truth about his father.
John Finch is a plausible character surviving a city occupied by conquerors. It seems as if the gray caps have only held the city for seven or eight years, but Ambergris has been the center of war for decades: the civil war among its great commercial Houses, and the war with the neighboring Kaliph. Finch is, by birth and training, a spy and a soldier. To some extent, he does not begin to understand his own role in what is how happening in Ambergris until he accepts that heritage.
This is the third book in a series that began with A City of Saints and Madmen, but it stands alone. I may have some of the details wrong, but I have read neither of the previous books and I had no trouble following the plot or understanding the significance of the dead man in the apartment.
This is a mature work, and after I surfaced from it, I began to wonder just how much research, especially in the area of mycology, VanderMeer had done — and how much on dictatorships. It’s possible that he did none at all — that he read an article about life in Iraq under Hussein, and then saw a recipe for ravioli al funghi and imagined the rest — but I don’t think so. It feels like VanderMeer gave a lot of thought to the concept of a race that exists underground and is completely networked and connected. Research is not “on display” in Finch, but small bits of action, description and the perfectly chosen facts that are delivered to the reader all build and cement the world that contains Ambergris.
VanderMeer’s choice to use fragmented sentences to depict Finch’s thought processes irritated me. This is supposed to hark back to detective noir. VanderMeer executes the technique very well; I just don’t care for it to this extent. Less can be more sometimes, and it should have been here.
After I finished Finch, I immediately ordered A City of Saints and Madmen. I may never look at a shitake mushroom the same way again, but I recommend Finch.
Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch is the third book set in VanderMeer’s fantastic city of Ambergris. While reading the first two books will certainly enhance and enrich your enjoyment of Finch, it’s by no means a requirement. Ambergris is an example of metro fantasy, where the world building focuses on a single — often decaying and decadent — city rather than an entire fantasy landscape and where the city takes on almost the role of a character in the work (China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and The City & The City or Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest are other examples). In Finch, Jeff VanderMeer melds metro fantasy and police noir to create a compelling read.
The story is set roughly a century or so after Ambergris was taken over by the “gray caps,” a sort of “mushroom people” who are not only akin to mushrooms themselves but who use fungus in all sorts of ways — as weaponry, medicine, etc. The gray caps themselves had been driven forcibly out (actually down) of Ambergris centuries earlier in a near-genocide. Now the gray caps employ many of the usual techniques of an occupying group, such as fear, constant surveillance (or at least the threat of such), detention/work camps, use of natives as informers and police, and the “disappearing” of individuals, along with some less common tools, such as drug-spewing mushrooms that keep at least a segment of the occupied populace docile while also forcing them into being dependent upon the occupiers. Meanwhile, the gray caps are constructing two giant towers whose purpose remains a mystery and constant source of speculation.
Enter our main character — the eponymous Finch — a detective reluctantly working for the gray caps. He’s called onto the case in question when two bodies, one human and one gray cap, are discovered in an apartment (it’s actually one and a half bodies as the gray cap is missing his legs).
As is always the case in these sort of noirish set-ups, the first glimpse of the crime never reveals what lies underneath and, as Finch investigates in typically noirish “world-weary” fashion, the mystery only unspools further rather than becoming clearer. More tropes will be evident to the reader: the problematic partner (though not many partners’ problems involve possibly turning into a mushroom), the mysteriously secretive female (actually two), the occasional gritty sex scene, authoritarian higher ups who may be involved in the whole mess, conspiracies, etc. By melding the two genres, Jeff VanderMeer gets the best of both worlds: he lets the reader pleasantly settle into the familiar tropes of language and narrative and character while also refreshing those tropes via the fantastic elements (fungal guns, his partner’s “colonization,” teleportation).
Nothing, of course, is ever what it seems, or, and this can be even trickier, what is what it seems can never be trusted to be what it seems and so takes a while before being accepted as such. The mystery in itself is compelling but becomes more so as it deepens and broadens, stretching into the political realms and then (it is fantasy after all) threatening perhaps the whole existence of Ambergris.
Finch is a well-drawn character as are several of the minor characters, and their relationships, especially between Finch and his partner, have a rich emotional tone to them, despite the sparse interplay usual in noir. One character might have a bit too much going on, edges close to being a bit too conveniently knowing/powerful, but doesn’t cross the line and it doesn’t detract much.
The city’s strangeness is ever-present but never overshadows the narrative or character development. One never, for instance, feels pulled out of the moment while the author grabs us to show us “this really, really cool thing I thought of.”
Finally, I’d be remiss in implying that all Jeff VanderMeer does is mix noir and fantasy. He’s got sci-fi and semi-steampunk, he’s got spies and rebel armies/leaders, he’s got teleportation and timeshifts, swords and tanks, treachery and a history of treachery, some beautifully descriptive passages, and he’s got, I’d argue, some sharp political commentary on what’s been going on in our world the past decade or so, and where it may be heading.
A compelling story, strong main character, and bracingly original sense of “difference” — what’s not to like? Highly recommended (but again, best to have read the previous books, though not a must).
Ambergris — (2001-2009) These are novels and story collections set in the Ambergris world. Secret Life also contains stories set in the metropolis featured in Veniss Underground (see below). Jeff VanderMeer plans to write more novels and stories in this world. Publisher: City of elegance and squalor. Of religious fervor and wanton lusts. And everywhere, on the walls of courtyards and churches, an incandescent fungus of mysterious and ominous origin. In Ambergris, a would-be suitor discovers that a sunlit street can become a killing ground in the blink of an eye. An artist receives an invitation to a beheading — and finds himself enchanted. And a patient in a mental institution is convinced he’s made up a city called Ambergris, imagined its every last detail, and that he’s really from a place called Chicago.… By turns sensuous and terrifying, filled with exotica and eroticism, this interwoven collection of stories, histories, and “eyewitness” reports invokes a universe within a puzzlebox where you can lose — and find — yourself again.