BRIEF SYNOPSIS: John Finch, detective, must solve a double homicide of a human and gray cap, even as the city of Ambergris slides into chaos.
PROS: Surreal tone; emotionally powerful; great mashup of the real and unreal.
CONS: Anti-climactic ending; early difficulty in understanding sentence structure.
BOTTOM LINE: The vibrant storytelling of a perversely beautiful city and its hard-boiled detective is well worth the reading.
In this gritty crime noir/fantasy mashup, World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer creates a narrative that is distressingly real, and yet so unreal as to be absurd. Like a Salvador Dali painting in prose, Finch mixes the mundane and the fantastic and then melts them together into one surreal but powerful work.
Using short, clipped sentences (dropping articles and pronouns from the beginnings of sentences, creating a weird but powerful effect) VanderMeer tells readers the story of the titular character, a detective in the city of Ambergris as he attempts to solve a double murder of a human and a gray cap. Gray caps are mushroom like beings whose fungal technology have allowed them to take over the leadership of the city of Ambergris, making either rebels, participants, or those just trying to survive of the remaining human population.
Set in the same city as his previous works City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword, VanderMeer’s story stands alone. It is not necessary to have read anything by VanderMeer before, though it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
The clipped sentence structure takes a bit of getting used to. VanderMeer is writing a crime noir, and the solving of the mystery is at the fundament of the plotline. He uses the strange sentences to convey the thinking process of Finch, whose perspective is the only one presented. Though this style takes a little effort to segue into, once the reader has done so it adds a great deal to the enjoyment of the story.
Finch is an interesting character, and rather than allow him to be a stereotypical detective, VanderMeer works hard to give him a personal history that interacts closely with the city’s own. Flashbacks to Finch’s past provide glimpses of a city that is not as it is now, overrun by fungus, depressed, and near death. The city of Finch’s youth was vibrant for a short time, before civil war destroyed it. The history of both the city and Finch are extremely vibrant and create a place for the reader to ground themselves in semi-normalcy, since the current Ambergris is so utterly strange.
The story is oddly beautiful, like Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” the novel is fascinating in its strangeness. Following Finch as he attempts to solve the double homicide provides a new surprise around every corner, and though the ending was a bit anti-climactic, the vibrant storytelling of a perversely beautiful city and its hard-boiled detective was well worth the reading.