DeFlip Side #107: Autumn Leaves

DS107.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

If you’re not sick of raking by now you probably soon will be. So tonight I’m going to offer up some leaves you might not mind picking up this fall season—the kind that come bound between two covers. Hey, I review a lot of books around here. You knew I had to use this pun eventually.

First up is Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel Finch, the third and final volume of his Ambergris Cycle. Finch sits comfortably alongside its predecessors, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterward as another testament to VanderMeer’s willingness to constantly experiment with the concept of a “traditional” novel in an effort to transcend its limitations. Whether or not he succeeds this with Finch is arguable, but the book certainly imbues VanderMeer’s fictional city of Ambergris with its trademark flair.

Finch returns readers to an Ambergris in strife, in thrall to the mysterious gray caps—its mushroom-like underground denizens—who have conquered the city and subjugated it to martial law. Fungus blights Ambergris like a cancer, and 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 is quickly 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.

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 bring readers viscerally into the story, trolling Ambergris’s dirty back alleys along with Finch.

But as I said, it’s arguable whether this unconventional narrative technique benefits the book; I personally was never able to fully immerse myself in the story because of the way it stuttered across the page.

This is ironic, because VanderMeer’s masterful prose is what turned me on to the Weird Fiction movement to begin with. The stories in City of Saints and Madmen are astounding, particularly “An Early History of Ambergris,” made doubly stunning by the ancillary story contained entirely in the footnotes of 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 a century later. Shriek is the narrative thread that binds the Ambergris Cycle, 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. But by the time the book lets us in on his nebulous past, it has become largely academic. You’re fully vested in alias John Finch, and who he might once have been turns out to be largely inconsequential to the book’s resolution anyway.

On top of this, Finch spends a 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 finish the Ambergris Cycle.

But I will give VanderMeer this: it’s one hell of a conclusion. The climax of Finch is good enough to make you forgive any 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.

Finch also gives readers a better sense of the world (and worlds) beyond the city of Ambergris, so even if this is the last Ambergris novel, there’s nothing stopping VanderMeer from returning to the same fictional universe 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.

But if old weird is more to your speed, then look no further than Peter S. Beagle’s new novella Return, which revisits the extraordinary Fantasy realm Beagle first introduced in his 1993 novel The Innkeeper’s Song, proving once again that his prose style is unmatched for wit and grace.

Picking up one of the major plot threads left dangling at the end The Innkeeper’s Song, Return chronicles the attempt by Innkeeper’s protagonist Soukyan to confront the assassins dogging him, journeying back to the mysterious monastery from which he fled thirty years earlier and risking certain death to come to terms with his past. It’s a past that readers of Innkeeper’s were left mainly to guess at, and this story provides welcome information, shedding light on another corner of Beagle’s fantastic literary landscape.

The world presented in The Innkeeper’s Song was so dynamic that Beagle could have continued the story in any one of a hundred different directions with any of the characters—which the author proved in his masterful 1997 collection Giant Bones, featuring 6 tales set entirely in the Innkeeper’s universe, including “Lal and Soukyan” the first story to revisit specific Innkeeper’s characters.

As those stories demonstrated, when Beagle is behind the keyboard, compelling fiction is what happens when characters are busy making other plans. His protagonists always wind up in much different places than they at first intended. This is especially evident in “Lal and Soukyan” which begins as a fairly routine quest for redemption and ends up as a haunting and poignant ghost story.

But Return is uncharacteristically straightforward. This directness is appropriate, since the story demands that Soukyan engage in a focused, solitary mission. But that necessity doesn’t make for an insular tale. The narrative still handily acknowledges the broader Innkeeper’s universe, giving an ample sense of the potential marvels that lie just over the next rise. And even though you don’t get to see them this time out, the origins of Soukyan’s mysterious assassins provide wonder equal to any other Innkeeper’s offering.

Unfortunately, you may also be left wondering how to get your hands on a copy of Return. Subterranean Press has sold out of this limited-edition hardcover, and little wonder. It’s a gem for any collector’s library, featuring illustrations by Chesley Award winning artist Maurizio Manzieri. You can still find copies on Amazon, but they probably won’t last long.

But Beagle fans who miss the boat shouldn’t panic. Return is also available for free on the Subterranean Press website. Read the online version here. And click the Amazon links to check out all the other books I’ve mentioned on tonight’s show—just so many more colorful leaves to brighten your fall.

-30-