by Jeff VanderMeer
(Ambergris Cycle, Book 3)
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
If Jeff VanderMeer’s books have anything in common, it’s that they’re all unique. VanderMeer isn’t beholden to any specific writing style, preferring to let the nature of a given story dictate the patterning of prose and narrative structure.
His new novel Finch is no exception. The third and final volume of what VanderMeer dubs his Ambergris Cycle, Finch sits comfortably along side its predecessors, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterward as another testament to VanderMeer’s willingness to constantly question the concept of a “traditional” novel and experiment with the form in an effort to transcend its limitations.
Whether or not he succeeds this with Finch is arguable, but the novel certainly imbues VanderMeer’s fictional city of Ambergris with its trademark flair.
Finch returns readers to an Ambergris in strife. Fractured and weakened by civil war between House Hoegbotton & Sons and Frankwrithe & Lewden, Ambergris became an easy target for the mysterious gray caps, its mushroom-like underground denizens, who rose and conquered the city, subjugating it to martial law.
Fungus now blights Ambergris like a cancer, the air thick with spores. Formerly human Partials patrol the streets, quasi-fungal enforcers who keep the populace in line while the gray caps build two mysterious towers. But rumors of a resistance persist, fueled by subversive radio broadcasts from the mysterious Lady in Blue.
Straddling these factions is John Finch, a detective working for the gray caps who has tabs on the city’s underground. When Finch catches a bizarre double homicide—one human, one gray cap—that’s obviously linked to the resistance, he must work his shady connections to solve the case.
But Finch quickly discovers that he’s in over his head, navigating criminal factions to crack the mystery, while struggling to stay one step ahead of his gray cap bosses in a search for answers that may help the resistance liberate Ambergris once and for all.
Finch is New Weird meets pulp noir, a hard-boiled detective story unwinding in Ambergris’s surreal mean streets. And in service to this atmosphere, VanderMeer writes Finch primarily in first-person sentence fragments, terse prose meant to lend immediacy to the text and allow readers to experience the story on a more visceral level, trolling Ambergris’s dirty back alleys along with Finch.
But as I said before, it’s arguable as to whether this unconventional narrative technique ultimately works to the book’s benefit; it all boils down to a matter of taste. I happen to enjoy a more dynamic, descriptive prose style—not purple, but buoyant. As a result, I was never able to fully immerse myself in the story, chiefly because of the way it stuttered across the page.
That I found this to be Finch’s primary weakness is ironic, because VanderMeer’s masterful prose is what converted me irrevocably to the Weird Fiction movement to begin with. The very first paragraph of his novel Veniss Underground blew me away, and put me firmly on Team Vandermeer, never to look back.
The stories in City of Saints and Madmen are equally astounding, particularly “An Early History of Ambergris.” I was stunned by this absorbing tale, doubly so by the ancillary story contained entirely in the footnotes to this “historic” pamphlet penned by fictional author Duncan Shriek.
Shriek becomes the focus of the second Ambergris book and his legacy plays a major role in Finch, set some 100 years later. Shriek is the yeoman of the entire Ambergris Cycle, the narrative thread that effectively binds it together. And in Finch, VanderMeer gives Duncan his proper due, definitively concluding his story to satisfy fans.
What’s less satisfying about Finch is Finch himself. It’s obvious from early on that Finch isn’t who he says he is, that his nebulous past as a soldier in the war between the houses has driven him to adopt his new identity. The problem is that by the time the book lets us in on the hows and whys, they have become largely academic. You’re fully vested in alias John Finch, and who he might once have been turns out to be tangential (and largely inconsequential) to the resolution of the book’s main plot anyway.
On top of this, Finch spends a good majority of the novel wholly out of his depth, bouncing unwittingly between rival factions working towards ends he can’t figure out. As a result the story drives its title character instead of the other way around. In the end, Finch comes off as little more than a walking plot device that brings together the many disparate elements VanderMeer felt he needed to craft the conclusion he envisioned for the Ambergris Cycle.
But I will give VanderMeer this: It’s one hell of a conclusion. Despite my grumblings about how it gets there, the climax of Finch is good enough to make you forgive the book’s shortcomings. And so is the depiction of Ambergris; even in decline, VanderMeer’s fungal milieu is still in full, fantastic flower, complimented by the many bizarre characters and creatures that Finch encounters—not least of which is his spore-infected, mutating police partner and best friend Whyte. Whyte is my hero.
Finch also gives readers a better sense of the world (and worlds) beyond the city of Ambergris, so even if this is the last novel to visit the metropolis rising along the River Moth, there’s nothing stopping VanderMeer from returning to the same fictional universe (or universes) to start dazzling us anew.
Wherever he goes from here, we can be assured of one thing about Jeff VanderMeer’s next book: it’ll be as unique as those that have come before it, and break new ground in New Weird.