“And after? What then?”
——’s dark gaze, from a dark place. The rectangle hanging in the air like a magic trick. A terrible power. Something in between.
“After? After, I’ll be gone. Somewhere. Everywhere. Nowhere. A pile of ashes at the base of the towers…”
“And I’ll still be here,” Finch said. It came out like an ache.
——, forceful: “You are a man who did the best he could in impossible circumstances. That’s all.”
Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer, is probably the best book I’ve read this year.
John Finch is a detective in an Ambergris under Grey Cap rule – six years after they Rose from the underground, the city is flooded, fractured, and mutating. Finch is put on the case of a double murder that seems impossible. His partner, Wyte, is transforming, in the process of colonisation by fungus. And as he delves deeper into the case, he finds himself contending with most of the major elements fighting for some kind of control in the city.
Each novel in the Ambergris Cycle has been a different experience – City of Saints and Madmen a mosaic novel of short pieces in a wide variety of styles, from the straightforward to the experimental. Shriek: An Afterword was a biography covering several decades in the history of Ambergris and of the siblings Duncan and Janice Shriek, through Duncan’s explorations into the Grey Cap underworld and the beginning of the Wars of the Houses that tore the city apart across a hundred years. Throughout both, the Grey Caps remain mysterious, lurking, and decidedly sinister, with only cryptic fragments offered as to their ultimate purposes.
In Finch, the model is that of detective fiction, a story that begins with a murder to solve and has plenty of gunfights, interrogation, spies, and people who know much more than they’re willing to share. The prose emulates a style often associated with the hardboiled genre, direct and to the point, and keeps the story moving at a strong pace. The choice of this mode allows VanderMeer to take us down inside the city of Ambergris, to look at it through the eyes of one of its citizens during one of its lowest points, and to watch as the investigation of Finch’s case draws all these mysteries from the previous books up to the surface. Finch is experienced, but in this case as uninformed as the reader, presented with an impossible situation and tasked with trying to come up with an explanation from very shaky evidence.
After about as mundane an investigation as is possible in Ambergris, the turn toward the truly fantastic begins halfway through the novel, when one single encounter begins to turn everything on its head. Finch from that point finds himself rapidly losing what little control over events he had (if he could ever be said to have any), and by the end is reduced, like the reader, to an observer of happenings that are far bigger than himself. The climax of this novel, the culmination of all the hints and fragments in the works that made up the Cycle, is nothing less than the ending of one era and the beginning of a new one, one with limitless possibilities for the world of Ambergris. It’s as satisfying as it is tantalising to the follower of this story, as many questions answered as new ones opened.
As much as I’ve gone on about the style and story, the other real achievement in this novel is probably Finch himself. A detective who never asked to become a detective. A false name and a hidden past – just like everyone else in the city. A man in a place and time where noone can truly be trusted, who yet chooses to stand by his friend and partner after his contamination begins to change him into something other. Whose friends and lover are people he will never truly know or trust. Who tries to do his best at being a detective when most people see him as a traitor to the species for doing it. Who is confronted with threats, violence, impossible events and all kinds of abuse and yet still manages to find a place for mercy, friendship, and hold onto a sense of justice. Through all the things that happen to him, Finch’s voice is strong, and his personality drives the story forward even when he is not in control of what happens to him.
I’ve rambled on as usual, but suffice to say this book has become an instant favourite of mine, and is possibly the best work VanderMeer has released to date. The blending of fantasy and detective genres is almost perfect, and the story lying under the story – the story of Ambergris – is about as good an ending to the cycle as could be asked for.
Despite the lack of squid.