Wyte stopped walking, faced him. Finch had his back to a crumbling wall veined through with fungus so blue it looked black. An overlay of scattered bullet holes. Across the street, a laughing pack of Partials shoved a couple of prisoners ahead of them. A middle-aged bearded man with a bandage across his forehead and angry rips in a shirt discolored pink. A woman who could have been the man's wife, her long black hair being used as a leash by one of the Partials. Just a jaunt around the block before getting down to business. (p. 85)
History, or rather its root of "story," can be a cruel, deceitful monster. People inspired by one telling of the past may go forth and butcher their neighbors, just because of stories that may not ultimately be "true." Memories can be haunting by themselves, but when infused with stories from the past that are tinged to place might and right on one's side, who can fathom the depths to which one may be self-deluded or, ultimately, betrayed? What may seem insignificant in the present may have antecedents that were considered to be momentous, or perhaps the mundane present can give birth to unimaginable futures. History's treacheries may inspire or crush societies, but no society ever truly remains static or totally free of being enslavement to (false?) memories of the past.
In Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris Cycle, the various false faces that history and memory can wear are interwoven into the fabric of these tales. From the myths surrounding the razing of the gray cap city of Cinsorium to the fates of Samuel Tonsure, Voss Bender, and Duncan Shriek, there are layers upon layers of shaded meaning. What is happening between the lines? Which writers, if any, manage to follow that old deceiving adage of historians, wie es eigentlich gewesen? In my recent re-reading of VanderMeer's first two Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword, I found myself referring back to this adage of Ranke's. How can one even hope to believe that "how it actually has been" can be found in narratives like that of Janice and Duncan Shriek? Who is "lying," and who merely is self-deceived?
In the concluding book to the Ambergris Cycle, Finch, the issues surrounding the relationships between past and present are brought to the fore in VanderMeer's apparently most straightforward narrative yet. Set around 100 years after the events in Shriek: An Afterword, Finch is on the surface a noir-like murder mystery. Ambergris, after decades of internecine warfare between two leading trading companies, fell under the control of the gray caps in the Rising six years before the present story. The city, always in a fragile state, has become a brutal occupation zone. Passages such as the one quoted above pepper the narrative. Humans are herded into quasi-concentration camps or they are subdued by the gray caps by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms that provide euphoria and substance to the addicts. Bands of altered human quislings, called Partials, spy on the population, trying to stamp out the last vestiges of revolutionary activity inspired by the enigmatic Lady in Blue. Ambergris is rotting on both the inside and out, or perhaps being on the verge of a transformation may be a more apt description.
In this chaos, just as the gray caps are nearing the end of a momentous building project, two bodies (one human, the other half of a gray cap) suddenly appear, dead. The gray caps coerce the human detective, John Finch, to investigate. Over the course of several days, Finch follows leads provided through the gray cap's strange abilities to draw memories from the dead bodies, but ultimately each clue leads Finch further down into a rabbit hole in which reader assumptions about Finch, Ambergris, and even the stories told about various characters' pasts are challenged.
Finch is written in the style of a hard-hitting noir mystery. Finch speaks in clipped sentences, often fragmented. He is introspective, but not overly so. He has a deadly mystery to solve, while all the while trying to stay alive while some truly horrific events happen. Since much of the impact of the story comes from its excellent use of the mystery model, nothing much will be said about the plot. Instead, as already noted above, it is the thematic elements of Finch that make this perhaps VanderMeer's best novel in one of my favorite fiction series.
Readers who are new to the Ambergris setting certainly can read Finch first. After all, it is akin to reading a historical novel about the 16th century Tudors before reading a story about the split of the Plantagenet ruling family near the end of the 14th century. Sure, the prior events, as detailed in City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword will provide extra context (and contextual mysteries) for the reader. However, a major strength of Finch is that the "present-day" story is so strong that prior knowledge of the Ambergris setting is not necessary.
As with any hard-hitting mystery novel, there are several twists and turns, several of them surprising at the onset but logical when considered in relation to the story as a whole. Finch as a character changes dynamically, at least how the reader interprets him. What was fascinating to me was how VanderMeer manages to show this to the reader, while still having Finch attempt to deny this for most of the novel. This narrative tension between what the reader "knows" and what the protagonist refuses to admit to himself made for an intriguing read for me. Add to that the parallels between occupied Ambergris and what is transpiring in the world today and the story takes on several layers of meaning, many of which I am certain that I am not detailing here.
The narrative, as noted above, is crisp and fast-paced. VanderMeer does not embellish much here, an interesting contrast to the styles he chose for the previous two Ambergris books. If anything, there are times that it feels too fast, as though I were missing something even after a re-read. This feeling was strongest toward the final scene, when so much is happening that it was hard to keep track of everything. But I suspect that might have been the point of it - to show that there are certain events whose significance may be beyond our ken.
Finch is certainly one of the best novels that I have read this year. Despite the minor quibbles that I noted above, there is so much that VanderMeer did "right" in terms of balancing narrative, characterization, and themes that I have found myself thinking about some of the issues related to this novel (and to the series as a whole - see the recent interview I conducted with VanderMeer) for several days now. Finch is a novel that I believe would appeal to a wide range of readers, from mystery fans to lovers of surreal fiction to those readers who want to "think" and "feel" simultaneously. It's just a damn good book and I suspect future re-readings will only strengthen my appreciation for what VanderMeer managed to accomplish in this novel. Most highly recommended.
Publication Date: November 3, 2009 (US; some copies shipping currently from Amazon). Tradeback. UK edition forthcoming from Atlantic's Corvus imprint.
Publisher: Underland Press
Disclaimer: I was sent a PDF of this book by the author back in April 2009. However, this has had no real impact on my take on the series, as I've been a fan of VanderMeer's writing for over five years now.