Finch by Jeff Vandermeer
I’m a sucker for a good cover, and I love this cover. It’s eye-catching and interesting and different. Much like the story it contains (except for the eye-catching bit, which doesn’t really work, and leads to this horrible parenthetical digression which, really, spoils the whole snappyness of the intro paragraph… oh well.)
Ambergris is a city taken over by mushrooms. Seriously. Fungus to be more precise. The whole thing is quite insidious and leaves you feeling slightly grimy as spores and mould grow on every surface and invade buildings and even people. Ambergris is an occupied city, brought low by civil war and invaded by an alien fungal race who have subjugated its human inhabitants, most of whom now seem to exist in a kind of drug-fuelled lassitude. Those that aren’t committing crimes or rebelling.
I never really got a sense of what the day to day life of the general populace is. A select few have been chosen by the gray caps (the mushroom overlords) to be ‘detectives’ and police the city. But I’m not sure what anyone else does, money seems to be food tokens (issued by the gray caps) and people eat food dispensed from giant mushrooms but I get no real sense of society other than the few colourful individuals Finch interacts with and the rebels (who are busy rebelling, obviously).
It’s an ongoing theme. A lot of the colourful characters aren’t delved into nearly as much as the fungal invasion. They’re interesting but tantalising. There is a feeling of depth to the characters (which I applaud) but at the same time you feel short-changed because of the lack of exploration of that depth. And ok, so the book has a single protagonist and,really, it’s his story, but still.
Now maybe some of this perceived lack is because this is the third book in the Ambergris cycle. Although this wasn’t mentioned till I read the afterwords. Apparently the books are all stand-alone, so that shouldn’t be the case, but it also says some of the questions raised in the first are answered in Finch which I should think means you will get more from this book having read the first two. However, the story itself is certainly standalone. The crime and everything it leads to are all contained within this book.
The Richard Morgan quote on the back calls it Fungal Noir. I think this should be re-written as Fungal. Noir.
Why? Well, the first part of the book is very fungal, going into a lot of detail about how the city is so overwhelmed by the infection, how people themselves are becoming colonised and changed. I found this interesting and quite different, I like exploring new worlds and original ideas, but my partner was a little turned off by the ‘fungal this, fungal that, fungal the other’. During this time Finch fumbles around a bit being a slightly rubbish detective. Then things start to kick off and it becomes more of a driven plot (and not necessarily because Finch starts detecting, mostly other people’s actions drive Finch through the plot). At this point the Fungal nature of things drops off and it becomes a more standard (and decent) story with fungal references thrown in just to remind us that the book is weird and different and please don’t notice that the whole fungal thing was just a device.
That’s a little uncharitable. The fungal thing is different and genuinely interesting (and repellent) in places, but it doesn’t always feel fully integrated and it doesn’t always feel fully justified as being anything more than backdrop, which is a shame.
If Finch were a computer game you would call it linear. You don’t necessarily feel Finch’s choices or decisions as a detective help him with his case. Other people make those decisions for him, other people feed him information or abduct him or lead him on. The most input he has is either in withholding information or being petulant before giving up information. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the story progresses well once you get into it, it’s interesting and exciting in places, it’s intriguing, but the main character is very much swept up in events which seems to make him an odd choice as the main character, he doesn’t really ever have a moment of triumph that isn’t thrust upon him by someone else. (except, I suppose for when he takes care of a particularly nasty antagonist who is one of the least convincing characters… who transitions from vicious master spy to common thug as the plot requires)
Finch is a well-written book, language-wise. Despite being full of spongy fungal weirdness I never tripped over a single sentence. In fact, I slowed down at points to re-read the odd descriptive paragraph because it was a thing of beauty. (and this is where I wish I’d marked a page or two to quote to you…) Some of the imagery is wonderful, remarkable. And while the prose is not like that in it’s entirety it never falls short of competent. One of the criticisms of creative writing students (and I am a degree level graduate) is that the primary thing taught is often simply the ability to critique (or criticise) other’s work, so strange or uncomfortable language will pull me up short where others might gloss over it and move on, I can be very sensitive to such things. I had no such problems with Finch and it’s probably a sad reflection on the state of current publishing that it was simply nice to read some faultless prose…
(way to alienate all publishers in one fell swoop, Xero… ;) )
It’s a shame too that one of the more interesting twists in the plot was given away on the back cover blurb.
Finch is situated in a lavishly described existence quite unlike any I’ve visited before, it’s an interesting world to explore for those of us who have seen so many alien places that are simply photoshopped Earth, or extreme Earth or Earth makeover. Or Mars. And for all my criticism it is a good read. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone just looking to give SF/ fantasy a go, there are much better places to start, but I would certainly recommend it to anyone well-read in the genre and looking for something different.
Finch by Jeff Vandermeer: 7/10