I’ve been planning on writing this review forever, and yet, something stopped me. Has nothing to do with the book — maybe something with writing reviews? I used to love penning reviews left and right, but not so much anymore. Still, even a month or two after finishing it, I still have a fire in my belly for the novel, which thrilled me in ways I did not expect.
So, fuck it. Here’s the review.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch.
First, let’s not get crazy. This is not going to be a well-organized or smartly conceived review. I just don’t have time to go through it that way. It’s a hard knock life, little babies. You’re gonna have to cope.
Second, I’ll do a quick summation, but don’t expect any spoilers or plot details. For me, personally, I find that reviews so often go to the plot details, as if they’re what really matters. That doesn’t matter to me. Everything else does, but how the plot unfolds? Not so much.
Our protagonist, Finch, is not a detective. It’s like a mantra to him: “I am not a detective. I am not a detective.”
And yet — hey, too fucking bad, the guy’s a detective. He’s forced to be by the brutish fungal masters that rule this fantastical city of Ambergris, and in the opening of the book Finch is working a case involving two Very Strange Bodies in a apartment, and these two bodies are so cryptic, so mysterious, that they serve as the springboard for an unholy unraveling of mystery and conspiracy. That one loose thread will pull the whole goddamn sweater apart for not just Finch, but the people he knows, the city he loves, and even those fungal masters (gray caps).
It’s classic noir. One thing leads to another, to another, to another — it’s an inverted pyramid, and the sharp pointy tip is pressing down on Finch’s back with all the weight of the world above him.
(A quote on the cover by Richard Morgan calls it “fungal noir,” which is so perfect a descriptor I wish he’d have stopped there — he goes on to call it “steampunk delirium,” which is so imperfect I wish he wouldn’t have included it. Oh, and one of my Writing Totems, Joe Lansdale, sells it on the back cover: “Heavy with shadows and dark as sin, detective, fantasy… I loved it. In fact, I’m a little jealous.”
High praise from one of my heroes.
Hey, Joe, I’m jealous, too. This book is a masters class on how to write a crime novel and a fantasy novel, together or separate.
Let’s get into what I adored about the book.
Fantasy Doesn’t Stiffen My Nips
I’ve noted it before: I don’t like fantasy for the most part. I think most of it falls back on convention. It jumps up and down in the Tolkien pool, splashing and squealing, so often ignoring what can be possible with fantasy. You look at the raw potential represented by the genre, and it’s infinite. Literally. “Fantasy can be about anything.” You have no boundaries. You are not fettered to any one notion or convention. And yet, so many authors take no such liberties and have no fun with it, and keep dragging their wheeled carts in the same muddy ruts left by those who had come before.
That is not Finch.
Vandermeer has his own thing going on here, and its deserving of mighty praise. He has created a world that feels familiar, but is dotted with landmarks that feel wholly alien and removed from anything we know and expect. The fungus alone has its own presence in this book, and the descriptions are moist, fetid, fractal, strange. No elves. No orcs. No dragons or fairies. It’s fungal guns. It’s memory bulbs. It’s spore cameras. It’s gray caps and Partials and — well, all that stuff you’ll have to discover for yourself.
It’s never inaccessible. Therein lies another problem with fantasy: for me, fantasy novels so often present a too-high barrier-to-entry. Lots of fantastic words and concepts ill-explained — clumsy attempts to “show, don’t tell” end up being neither, talking to me about weird concepts without context, and it stops me up. If I get ten pages into a book and I cannot tell you what’s happening, that book is down, gone, game over. I’m unforgiving with novels; perhaps not a good way to be, but it’s how I be, dangit. Finch presents alien concepts, but frames them in a context that feels real, with characters that seem authentic and interesting, and he doesn’t focus on the whiz-bang of the weirdness. He lets that be almost an afterthought — it matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as who Finch is, what he’s doing, how he’s feeling. It doesn’t flaunt the fantasy. And, when you finally get around to understanding things, it’s because he shows you how these things work. He doesn’t explain them. It’s like a painting, almost — you can run your hands across the textured canvas and make out details. Vandermeer is just pointing our gaze and our fingertips to different spots within the image.
Further, Vandermeer gets that it’s not about the fantasy. The fantasy doesn’t matter. The fantasy just frames it. It allows him to rearrange old story ideas and make them new. But it never dominates. It’s an old story, and I say that and mean that in the best way. It feels familiar, but uncertain.
It’s weird. I’d almost argue that “fantasy” is a fake genre after reading this book. If I were to look at a Stephen King book, or a Don DeLillo book, or a John McFetridge book, I’d never say, “This is in the Real World genre, because it takes place in Our World.” I’d say, “Oh, this one’s horror, this one’s contemporary America, this one’s crime.”
Fantasy isn’t a genre. It’s a setting. You can tell any kind of story in that setting, but too many authors seem over-focused on it being a genre, with the trappings of said genre.
Vandermeer clearly gives a middle finger to those conventions, because dangit if he isn’t telling a great piece of detective fiction in a fantasy setting. I’d love to see him take other genres and apply them to the setting of Ambergris — a city that feels alive to me, alive as any city I’ve been in. (One small failing of the book: no map of the city. I feel like I could’ve used it in the beginning, though as the book pushes forth you start getting a picture of the whole thing come together. Actually, I may have said it before, but Finch feels like a great example of a book that could have a whole transmedia experience packaged in and around it — an Ambergris “map app” could be the star of said package. But I’ll talk more about transmedia later in the week, I think.)
For the record, I’d compare this to China Mieville if you’re looking for a close comparison.
What a ludicrously bold and ambiguous header!
I apologize; I’m really not doing this novel justice.
Let’s talk briefly about the other things I loved about this book.
The characters? Yes. Finch starts off a cipher — an appropriate thing given that the book is as much about deciphering the character of John Finch as it is unraveling the mystery of the two dead bodies. Finch is our vehicle into this story, and we feel every nagging question, every turn down uncertain alleys and hallways, every tortured moment (mentally and physically). It’s a rough road. Rougher when you see how other characters fare: Wyte, Ethan Bliss, Sintra, and so forth. Their notes feel elegant, spare, just enough, just right.
The description? As said, it drips. It comes alive not with overwrought prose, but once more with brief and almost-perfect language. Vandermeer has chosen his words carefully; many novels are sloppily written, and frankly, that often works just fine. He takes it to a whole other level. The ideas here are truly bizarre, but his forthright language that deviates only occasionally into the poetic makes such strangeness accessible.
The plot? The plot is fine, but like with any noir, it’s hard to get your hands around it. Rather, it is the story — the whole circle of encompassed events and characters and possibilities — that engages me. Our line through that circle, the plot, is one that is hard to see. With noir, I find I don’t come for the plot — noir seems to be about plot, but it’s not. It’s about how the characters move through the plot and what that means for them.
Anything I Didn’t Like?
The “no-map” thing got me early on, but eventually ceased to be an issue.
The book clearly ties to some other Ambergris tales, and for selfish reasons (I haven’t read those) I wish he would’ve left out those connections — but, then again, those connections are what bolster my ideas that this is the perfect transmedia novel. It has tie-outs. It has other stories that spin forth from its prose. Had it been easy to follow those trails, those threads, I wouldn’t have found it as troubling. Again, selfish.
A few characters could’ve used a little more meat to their bones — yes, yes, selfish. Selfish because I loved what I got, and wanted more. A single bite, not nearly enough.
But really, that’s about it.
Vandermeer’s novel is a gift, a revelation that Good Is Good. Doesn’t matter what genre it is — I don’t care much for fantasy, and here is a fantasy novel I adore. Anything can be good when given by a great and gracious hand. I look forward to reading more of Vandermeer’s work — I have to wonder, is Finch a major step-up for him, or has his work always been like this? I recall reading that his other work strikes a very different mood and isn’t like this one at all. That might be great, though I’ll note it could be disappointing: I love this book so much that it’ll be hard to read other work that doesn’t at least capture some of what I loved here. The curse of the creator: create something great, and everyone wants that again and again. Me, I just want more Finch.