Fungi are not generally considered one of the more terrifying organisms on the planet. If you were to find a small collection of mushrooms in your shower, for instance, you might be revolted, but you would not be quite as worried as if it had been a bear.
In the city of Ambergris, however, fungus is most definitely something to be afraid of.
Set a decade after the rise (literally) of the Grey Caps, a species of sentient fungus, Ambergris is slowly, but inevitably, succumbing to their influence. The city is ravaged by spores, towering mushrooms provide food and drugs to placate the conquered human population and around every corner a new and potentially fatal threat awaits. Humans scurry from building to building, making a pretence of normality whilst all around them the city is slowly transformed into something new and alien on a daily basis.
Finch, the title character, is a detective with a mysterious past rooted in the human civil war that raged through the city before the Grey Caps rise. Now Finch goes through the motions of investigating disappearances and murders with no hope of solving them, whilst trying to avoid the attentions of his Grey Cap masters and their Partial accomplices (part human, part fungus, all nasty).
Finch’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart when he is ordered to investigate a double murder by his Grey Cap master Heretic. Rather than the normal incident of domestic violence taken too far, Finch finds the bodies of a Grey Cap sliced in two (with one half missing) and a man who has died after falling from a great height. Which is odd, given that both bodies are found inside a flat and there’s no evidence of them having been moved….
The case takes Finch (and the reader) on a journey through his dark past, the dangerous present and a glimpse of a future too terrifying to comprehend. Along the way Finch becomes involved in the machinations of rogue Partials, the Blue Lady and her lost rebellion and specters of his own hidden history.
Finch is the third book by Vandermeer set in the city of Ambergris, the previous two being a collection of short stories entitled “City of Saints and Madmen” and the biography of an Historian entitled “Shriek: An Afterword”. But it is not necessary to have read either book in order to follow the plot of Finch, with the world well established for new readers to Vandermeer’s Ambergris.
Finch himself is a sympathetic character, vaguely reminiscent of other noir characters such as Charlie Huston’s Joe Pitt and Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs and like any noir character things rarely go well for him. Thankfully, the story never gets stale or bogged down in cliché and drives on at a strong pace.
In many ways, the city itself is the real star of the story. Vandermeer’s descriptions of its decayed and dangerous fungus-ridden environs are excellent and frame the story wonderfully, with various districts and quarters adding their own unique character and individual dangers.
The novel is a mix of steam punk and biological (well, fungal) technology, with the novel’s characters surrounded by the machinery of both species. The blend of human and grey cap technology highlights the changing nature of Ambergris. As you read further into the novel it becomes apparent that the Grey Caps are remaking it in their own image, with the remaining human residents fighting a valiant but losing battle against the ever encroaching fungus. This is shown in the narrative through simple images such as the fortress of normality Finch has made of his home, which despite all his efforts is starting to be overcome by fungus, and the more human battle of his partner and long time friend Wyte, who is gradually being reshaped from a man into something… different…
It should be noted that Vandermeer’s writing style takes a little getting used to, for example:
“Finch, at the apartment door, breathing heavy from five flights of stairs, taken fast. The message that’d brought him from the station was already dying in his hand.”
I found it initially difficult to follow and a tad awkward. However, once this style is assimilated it flows wonderfully, leading to some great pieces of description and action that will have you reading the book over again.
Finch is a good solid novel, with an intriguing plot and interesting characters. It will appeal to lovers of both detective novels and steam punk (I especially enjoyed the fungal handguns) and will keep you reading to the surprising and exciting end. Just remember to keep the athlete’s foot powder handy…
Review by John Kenny