Jeff VanderMeer‘s fantastical city of Ambergris has always been—in my opinion—on a par with places like Gormenghast, Melinboné, Bas-Lag, or Amber. That is, a completely believable fantasy world where I would never, ever, not even in a million years or for a million dollars, want to go. And of all of the aforementioned places, Ambergris is top of that list as the one that’s the most deadly.
From The City of Saints and Madmen through Shriek: An Afterword to VanderMeer’s new novel Finch, Ambergris is a place where you feel just as likely to get a knife slipped into your kidneys as find a place to eat lunch. Not that the other places are a Disney-esque location where only fun happens, but there’s just a little something grittier about Ambergris. If you’ve never read any of VanderMeer’s Ambergris tales, see below* for a quick history of the city.
In Finch we follow the titular character while he works to solve a double homicide of a human and a gray cap (small mushroom-like, underground dwelling denizens). Unlike previous iterations of Ambergrisian tales where the language was either lush and baroque (The City of Saints and Madmen) or academic and literary (Shriek: An Afterword), Finch is gritty and subversive. It’s noir to the nines. You’ve got fisticuffs, gun fights, detective work, spies, and more (and yes, Finch has the requisite sexy lady in his life).
Layered on top of that is a sense of paranoia that makes you distrust everything that’s happening. This is perfect for a noir tale; you want the reader to not be sure whether they’re reading is real or a lie. VanderMeer also never lets you forget the proliferation of fungi in the city. From the giant mushrooms that spew drug-spores to the addicted masses to the fungally infested Whyte—Finch’s partner—the fungi are just as much part of the story as homicide investigation.
The fungi are paramount to the gray cap and their plans to control the city. They enhance the sense of Finch’s paranoia and the general feeling of unease that permeates each page. In the hands of a lesser writer the depth of the city’s description would overshadow the plot, whereas VanderMeer uses it to suck the reader into the story. The city is as much the protagonist of the book as Finch himself is.
If you haven’t read the previous Ambergris books, you’ll still be able to step into the story and move along. There is a brief timeline of Ambergris in the back of the book (it’s not really an appendix and it’s where I cribbed most of my information below) which would help new readers. But I don’t think you’ll need it. If Finch is the first book you read by VanderMeer, you’ll be heading back to the store or the library to get the rest.
** Potential Spoiler Alert **
For the long-time reader, there are pieces of the Ambergris mystery that are revealed in Finch that are so satisfying that at times I was thought I was imagining them. There’s no way my questions and concerns from so many words and so many years of reading VanderMeer were being addressed, were they?
Despite that Ambergris fiction is reflexive by nature, I was surprised when it happened. Such was the skill VanderMeer exercised in crafting Finch that I was so caught up in the mystery-story component of the novel that I forgot it was an Ambergris mystery story. VanderMeer could have easily made this just a story set in the world he created. Instead, he wove the details of this story into the overall mythology of Ambergris and made Finch essential as part of understanding Ambergris.
** End Potential Spoilers **
VanderMeer is one of the few authors whose new books I eagerly anticipate. Finch is VanderMeer’s most accomplished work to date. This is a book of layers, each new layer more vivid and disturbing than the last. The reader pushes deeper and deeper into these layers until you’re no longer sure where you are. It’s a completely engrossing and engaging read.
I’m honestly contemplating reading it again, and I can’t remember the last time I read a book more than once.
* It’s hard to be succinct when talking about Ambergris, as VanderMeer has created a rich history for the city, but I’ll do my best.
The pirate whaler Manzikert discover a city named Cinsorium that is populated by gray caps, a small, docile race of creatures that resemble mushrooms. Manzikert razes the city and slaughters all of the gray caps who don’t escape underground. Manzikert founds the city of Ambergris on the spot of the former city Cinsorium.
Several hundred years later, while the Ambergris fleet and royal family are downriver, all of the inhabitants of Ambergris disappear with no signs of violence. All that remains is a proliferation of fungus. This event is referred to as The Silence. The gray caps are not seen above ground very often at this time. After The Silence, there is a series of weaker and weaker kings until the city becomes merchant-run, with the powerful Hoegbotton trading house holding the most power.
Ambergris sees a renaissance of sorts in the areas of technological development, and eventually comes to a long period civil war and unrest as rival trading companies try to wrest power from Hoegbotton. The city is devastated through the years of war. The gray caps are seen with increasing frequency, even going so far as to sell military technology to Hoegbotton’s rival, Frankwrithe.
With little warning, the gray caps enact The Rising wherein they flood the city and take it over. The city’s fungal problem has reached an all-time high, with mushrooms and mold covering most surfaces. The gray caps are building two huge towers using slave labor. They have even taken to mutating humans, into things known as Partials, to get their dirty work done. It is six years after The Rising when Finch takes place.