Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jeff VanderMeer - Finch

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch, Corvus, 2009.

This is the final novel in VanderMeer's Ambergris series. I received this book without having read the previous novels, so this review reflects the reaction of a newcomer to the setting. My conclusion was that the book can be read alone, but that reading the others first might have provided additional depth.

The setting, and one of the main characters, is the city of Ambergris. It seems to have reached a twentieth-century level of technology, with items such as telephones, typewriters, guns and tanks, and to have been involved in wars with neighbouring cities and civil wars, before being occupied by an alien race called the gray caps, who have risen up from caves beneath the city. This species uses various types of fungus, and they have been changing the face of the city and its population. Many humans have simply disappeared, and a few collaborators have become hybrids. These are known as Partials. Some of the humans have become addicted to certain types of fungus.

The protagonist is John Finch, employed as a detective by the occupying force. As the story starts, he is called in to investigate a crime scene, where a human and a gray cap have been found dead. As he proceeds with this case, he finds the background more complicated and interesting than a simple crime. We encounter his partner, who has been infected by fungus; his gray cap boss; his mysterious lover; his book-collecting neighbour; and discover things about his hidden past. Eventually we learn about some surprising technology, and more about the city's history (which might be more familiar to readers of the previous novels).

This is the story of living under foreign occupation. What are you willing to do in order to survive? How far would you collaborate with the enemy? How much would you risk to become involved in the resistance? Who can you trust? All these issues paint a dark picture, and the future seems dim. The novel paints a vivid picture of the struggle to maintain a sense of human dignity and authenticity in an ever-changing world. As I read it, I found it hard to feel any hope for the future in such a dystopia. This made for an uncomfortable experience, and required some perseverance to overcome the pervasive sense of despair.

The novel is in the noir detective genre, which blends well into the fantasy setting. The style sometimes reflects the genre, using short sentence fragments. The author managed to create a reasonable balance between a more normal, descriptive style, and the choppy, blunt fragments that added to the overall feel and atmosphere of the story.

The story reaches a dramatic climax, providing a satisfying conclusion that was not the sort of taken-for-granted happy ending seen in many series. The character of Finch goes through a difficult journey, both in his experiences and in coming to terms with his past.

This was an interesting, well-written and dark novel, and I may read the other stories set in this world.

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