Finch by Jeff Vandermeer
Published: Underland Press (2009), Corvus (2010)
Series: Book 3 of Ambergris
Awards Nominated: Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Fantasy Awards
“In Finch, mysterious underground inhabitants known as the gray caps have reconquered the failed fantasy state Ambergris and put it under martial law. They have disbanded House Hoegbotton and are controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, and 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 a 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.” ~WWEnd.com
Somehow, I completely missed the fact that Finch was part of a larger series until after I’d finished reading the novel. I don’t think the series is a continuous story, but I suspect some details might have been a little clearer if I’d read the other two first. Anyway, this was a bewildering introduction to Jeff Vandermeer for me. In any case, I’m open to trying more of his novels in the future, because of his unusual style.
From the very beginning of the novel, I began to suspect that I had picked something completely outside my comfort zone. I’m not really a huge fan of horror or noir, and I think Finch can be best described as a mix between the two. Also, I am intensely disgusted by fungus, to the extent that it’s difficult for me to even prepare mushrooms (though I do eat them). The setting of Finch placed a lot of emphasis on feelings of dirtiness, lack of physical integrity, and disgust, through descriptions that lingered over various forms of fungi, fungal infestation and living fungal creatures. I guess the setting achieved it’s goals with me, though sometimes it was so gross that I had to stop reading for a while. It’s really a testament to the creativity of the story that I always wanted to come back and read it later.
Aside from the revulsion factor, I enjoyed the strangeness and complexity of the situation in Ambergris. Though the story started with the usual noir “detective with a sad past investigates a mysterious murder” line, the investigation was really not the point. Finch told us from the beginning that he wasn’t really a detective, and that he was just going through the motions in hopes of surviving the occupation. It took me a long time to get a clear understanding of Finch’s past and of the different political human factions, and I think there’s quite lot that I never managed to grasp. In retrospect, I wonder how much clearer things would have been if I’d read City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword first. Even without the grounding from the other Ambergris books, though, it was entertaining to try to make sense of everything that Finch uncovered.
In addition to the fungal grossness, the overwhelming atmosphere of despair in the novel kept me reading it in small bites. Finch had lost everything except his life, and he was forced to live in a never-ending nightmare. Ambergris was taken from the human inhabitants and transformed into something unrecognizable to them, as Finch’s partner Wyte was colonized by a fungus that was destroying both his mind and body. Finch’s sense of hopelessness gave the narration a feeling of detachment, which might have been part of why I never felt much of an emotional investment in the secondary characters. The end of the story was pretty exciting, but it also left a fair number of open questions. Overall, this was a difficult book for me, but I appreciated it’s creativity.
My Rating: 3/5
I didn’t realize that Finch was the third Ambergris book until after I’d finished reading it, so I probably lacked some foundation in understanding the complicated world. That, among other things, made this a challenging novel for me. I’m not a huge fan of weird horror and noir, which this book combines, and I had a strong disgust reaction to the fungal setting. Despite this, I really enjoyed the strangeness and creativity of the story and of Ambergris, and I’ll probably read more of Vandermeer’s work in the future. I think I’ll pick a novel with less fungus next time, because his writing on that front is too evocative for me to handle!