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A noir thriller/visionary fantasy set in the failed state of Ambergris, 100 years after Shriek: An Afterword. The gray caps, mysterious underground inhabitants, have re-conquered Ambergris and put the city under martial law, disbanding House Hoegbotton, and controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, martial law is in place, the gray caps are using human labor to build two strange towers. Against this backdrop, John Finch, who lives alone with a cat and a lizard, must solve an impossible double murder for his gray cap masters while trying to make contact with the rebels.
Nothing is as it seems as Finch and his disintegrating partner Wyte negotiate their way through the landscape of spies, rebels, and deception. Trapped by his job and the city, Finch is about to come face to face with a series of mysteries that will change him and Ambergris forever.
The cat and the lizard watch intently. Something is about to happen. And they both want to know: who is Finch, really?
At the heart of Finch lies a detective story. But like the city of Ambergris, in which Finch is set, the story is encrusted with layers of history and deception and flat-out weirdness. Oh yeah, and all manner of fungus, too.
I’ve been following Finch and its author Jeff VanderMeer since I got wind of the book. From video interviews, blog interviews, book reading videos and VanderMeer’s blog I got the impression that Finch would be not only novel (heh), but also layered and complex. Even though I usually try to dial down my expectations for books, I convinced myself that Finch would be a book I would love. The cover alone offered promises of grim weirdness and surreality draped over the familiar noir detective novel.
As I began reading, I realized I was waiting for my expectations to be dashed even though I found the story compelling and the writing superb. I worried for no good reason. Finch worked for me from start to finish. Even in those moments where I wondered what was going on, I reveled in my ignorance of things and the let the story explode into my brain the like the spores that have infected Finch’s partner.
There is an overlay of grim despair on Finch, Ambergris, pretty much everyone and everything in the story. Even so, Finch plods forward to unravel the mysteries of his past and the double homicide.
Along with the cast of human and humanoid characters, Ambergris the city shines as a character. Brilliant fungi in countless forms cover the city. Some are just fungi, but some function as spy cameras or dispensers of some kind of opiate to calm the masses. VanderMeer does a great job of keeping the boot of Ambergris’s humid fetor on your neck throughout the story:
Finch’s apartment was near the end of the hall. Had to negotiate a hothouse wetness to get there. Tendrils and caps of red-and-green fungus sprouted from the walls. Gray caps only cared about keeping the streets clean. No help from his next-door neighbors, either. Almost like they thought it gave them camouflage.
Fungus of all hues infiltrates the city, the story, the characters and your mind:
In the apartment, the bodies lay much as before. Except that each had sprouted a thick, emerald-green stalk topped by a nodule. The detectives called them memory bulbs. No one could pronounce what the gray caps called them. Sounded like a word between loam and leer. An aqua-colored nodule for the man. Bright orange for the gray cap.
A spotlight of lavender and crimson painted itself across the far wall of his apartment, then leapt away. Once, Finch had seen a shoal of spores take the form of a huge, bloated green monster. Spiraling red eyes. It had bellowed and dived into a neighborhood to the north. Smashed itself into motes against the ground.
My only complaint was that I hadn’t read Shriek: An Afterword or City of Saints and Madmen before reading Finch. Not because I needed them to understand Finch, but because I felt like a newcomer to a cool, underground party that had been going on for hours without me. I shall remedy that as soon as I can.
Do yourself a favor: Read Finch. If you like noir detective stories you’ll recognize the underpinnings, but your mind will be significantly stretched by the time you finish this. If you’re not a big detective story kind of person, there’s more than enough in Finch to fascinate.