Thursday, April 13, 2023

Finch by Jeff VanderMeer

I've turned, in my middle years, into the kind of man who reads the end of a trilogy first. Even worse, I do that ten years later. I have no excuse for myself.

Jeff VanderMeer wrote three books about the city of Ambergris, and I have copies of all of them - the collection City of Saints and Madmen, the metafictional novel Shriek: An Afterword, and the detective story Finch. Now, my understanding going in was that they were not "a trilogy," exactly, though I might have overestimated how much each of them stands alone.

Finch is clearly the end; it's set about a century after Shriek, in a city that I think has been radically transformed from how it was in the earlier books. I read it because it gave me a vague Disco Elysium feeling - cop who is not who he seems, in a weird, half-ruined world full of radical factions, smart writing and moral dilemmas - and I was in the mood for that.

I have no regrets.

There's a man who calls himself John Finch. That's not the name he was born with, and we will find out his earlier name eventually. He works as a detective in the city of Ambergris, which is under the control of a subterranean non-human race that humans call "gray caps." (Their name in their own language is something like fanaarcensitii; there are several spellings in the decade-old uncorrected proof I read.) This is not our world, but it's not too different. Call it an alternate-world SF novel, with some quirky biotech - VanderMeer was one of the pillars of the New Weird, but he's generally more SF than fantasy; the things that happen usually have physical, especially biological explanations.

The gray caps' technology is all grown, and a lot of it, like a lot of creepy stuff across VanderMeer's work, is fungus. It is creepy, and unsettling - as much so as the gray caps themselves, who are not described in great detail but give an impression of being both humanoid and shark-like. They are notably hard to kill, not that any of the humans under their thumb have much hope or opportunity to kill them.

Ambergris has been through years of turmoil, as two warring mercantile houses battled for two decades for control of the city-state before the devastating and successful gray cap invasion. There are also remnants of the indigenous population - the former human ruling class of Ambergris were invaders, around a millennium ago, and that is still a raw wound in some quarters. And its neighbors were not terribly friendly even during the old long war - parts of that war were somewhat of a proxy battle involving those neighboring states - and now have spies and other assets in Ambergris to keep an eye on the gray caps. Oh, and the gray caps have converted a fair number of humans into Partials, through their fungal technology - servants of the gray caps with always-recording fungal eyes, loyalists to the new regime whose interests may diverge in the end from both humans and gray caps.

And the gray caps are feverishly building two towers, out in the bay, with their own, human, and Partial labor. It's clearly central, clearly important, but none of the humans and Partials know why, or what it's meant to do. Everyone, though, has worries and theories, some wilder than others.

Finch is tasked, as this novel opens, with solving a double murder: one human and one gray cap - or rather half of a gray cap; it was neatly bisected at the waist - are lying dead in an ruined apartment, seemingly having fallen from a height. Their identities are unknown.

His investigation will of course cross all of the fault lines of this very broken city; that's how a detective novel works. I'm not going to spoil any of that: it's an interesting novel, full of great moments and fascinating details, and it succeeds as both a SF novel and a detective novel in the end.

I'm not quoting from it, since I read it in uncorrected proof form, and any words may have been quietly edited a long time ago. But it's a neat book by a fine writer - and not one of the VanderMeer books talked about as much recently. I haven't read nearly as much VanderMeer as I'd like to, so I was happy to grab one, read it quickly, and enjoy it this much.

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