Wednesday, 11 November 2009
‘Finch’ – Jeff Vandermeer (Underland Press)
How do you choose which book to pick up next? I generally go by a mix of genre choice and book cover but I’ve also been known to choose slim books over doorstop novels as well as closing my eyes and grabbing a random book from the pile. Sometimes though I really cannot decide what book to read and, in those times, I know that I should take my choices to a higher power and let them decide what I should be reading. Yes, sometimes I get my wife to choose a book for me... :o)
Last week I showed the wife two books to see which one she would go for. After careful consideration it was ‘the book with the pretty cover’. I won’t tell you what was said about the other choice, it wasn’t pretty...
The ‘book with the pretty cover’ was Jeff Vandermeer’s ‘Finch’ and I’ve just spent the last few days utterly enthralled by this tale. I don’t know quite where it will end up in my list of reads for the year but you can bet that it will be somewhere near the top.
Ambergris is not the city you knew before. The fungal Gray Caps have taken advantage of a drawn out civil war to rise above ground and make their presence felt. The city is now theirs.
In this bombed out landscape, haunted by the Gray Caps and their hybrid human allies (‘Partials’), detective John Finch is tasked with solving an impossible double murder. When you’re working for the enemy though, how much do you let them know? How much can you let anyone know in a city where personal survival is paramount and knowledge is power? When it comes down to it, what does Finch really know at all...?
The answers will become apparent but whether Finch will live to reach them is another matter entirely...
I love a good cityscape in a fantasy novel; if it’s done well then it almost becomes a character in its own right and you put the book down feeling as if you’ve actually been there rather than just read about it. Vandermeer already achieved this with Ambergris in ‘City of Saints and Madmen’ (I’ve still yet to read ‘Shriek: An Afterword’) and does it again in ‘Finch’.
The Ambergris of ‘Finch’ is a striking mix of bombed out wasteland and nightmarish fungal growth; Vandermeer doesn’t lay the description on thick but there’s no question of you not knowing what you’re walking through on the way to the conclusion. Landmarks play an important role in defining the current landscape of Ambergris as well as the constant sight of rubble. If you’ve walked down either Manzikert Avenue or Albumuth Boulevard before then these familiar streets will ease you back into Ambergris while at the same time showing you just how much time has passed. If you haven’t then... maybe you need to read the two preceding books first. In fact, you definitely need to. There’s a lot going on here that will make a lot more sense if you read ‘City of Saints & Madmen’ and ‘Shriek’ first and the conclusion (although fine on it’s own) really needs that prior reading to kick ass in the way that it was designed to.
Ambergris also feels like a character in its own right as the city itself comes across as practically empty during the course of Finch’s mission. There are other characters but they are all hidden away, behind their doors, for Finch to find. What you get as a result is a sense of silence that is almost palpable and is perhaps a hearkening back to the original ‘Silence’ that blighted the early history of Ambergris. There is a story to be told but a lot of the time the emphasis comes across as being on the city itself and those are the best times to get a feel for Ambergris. I’m glad I don’t live there but the atmosphere was so rich and compelling that I didn’t want to leave.
Detective stories are inevitably tales of impossible cases, double crossing and a detective who has no idea of what he’s got himself into until it’s far too late. Vandermeer doesn’t stray too far away from this outline and you can find yourself getting a feel for the ebb and flow of this part of the plot; so much so in fact that you may be able to predict just when the case will either hit a dead end or move in a new direction. There is such a delicious sense of the ‘alien’ about things though and this balances out the feeling that you may know where the plot is going. Where else would you find a detective novel where the chief was a ruthless talking piece of fungus? And having a partner being eaten alive by a fungal disease certainly adds an interesting new slant to the idea ‘the cop and his partner’ solving a case while sorting out their own issues. Like ‘Lethal Weapon’ with talking mushrooms...
Finch himself also drives the plot forward in the best possible way. Here’s a character who can’t even remember who he really is and has enough ties with the shadowy organisations of Ambergris to make knowing who to support a tricky question every single time. Finch is a tenacious character though, even if his overall motives are questionable, and it’s this tenacity that makes you want to stick with him and for him to make it through to the end. Does he end up doing the right thing though? I’m still not sure about that one...
‘Finch’ is not only a gripping detective story but a triumphant conclusion to events set in motion a long time ago. Things are left open for more tales in Ambergris and I hope things are explored further as I would certainly be there for more.
Nine and a Half out of Ten