'Finch' by Jeff Vandermeer

Finch by Jeff Vandermeer is the third and final book in his sort-of-trilogy about the fictional city of Ambergris, surely one of the finest creations in the realm of speculative fiction, a metropolis as alive and alien as China Mieville's New Crobuzon, M John Harrison's Viriconium and Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast. The city was mapped in the patchwork novel that was the excellent, somewhat baroque, City of Saints and Madmen. Here we discovered the violent and unique history of the place; built on the massacre of the native inhabitants, a strange troglodytic race known as the 'Gray Caps' (who will figure greatly in all three novels) who seem to be fungal in nature, and able to manipulate the spores and mushrooms in horrific and unusual ways, Ambergris is an old, rotting city riven by warring factions linked to two different trading companies, with the constant unexplained presence of the Gray Caps (who now live under the city) causing constant unease in the background.

The next novel in the sequence, Shriek: An Afterword, focused on the exploits of fringe-theory historian Duncan Shriek and his attempts to uncover the mystery of the Gray Caps, becoming somehow infected throughout his various trips underground with some sort of fungal infestation; this is a key element that will resurface in Finch. The novel presents itself as a memoir written by Duncan's sister, Janice, detailing the disappearance of her brother and her own exploits in the art world of Ambergris, and the wars that then rocked the city. But this being Jeff Vandermeer, the text is full of annotations by Duncan who has supposedly found the manuscript sometime afterwards, giving us not one, but two, unreliable narrators (very much like Nabokov's Pale Fire).

Finch has a noticeable shift in tone from the other two books, being presented intentionally in the style of hard-boiled detective fiction, and so reads quite differently from the previous two Ambergris novels. Some reviewers have claimed to find this annoying, but I found that the technique worked very well; in fact this meld of detective fiction and sci-fi/fantasy works very well (much like in China Mieville's The City and the City), somehow making the events described seem more realistic and less 'fantastic'.

The novel focuses on the character of Finch, now some sort of detective working for the Gray Caps in an Ambergris many years in the future, long after the events described in Shriek. We discover that there was some sort of uprising by the Gray Caps and they have reclaimed the city; everything is infected with fungus and decay, and the novel is filled with a feeling of rot and despair. This fungal infestation is even affecting the human populace; something truly horrific happens to Finch's partner, Wyte, and the Gray Caps are aided by disturbing figures named 'Partials', human beings who willingly collaborated with their overseers and allowed themselves to be colonised with fungal infections that gift them unnatural skills, but at great cost. Citizens are being interred in camps, and the remnants of rebel forces seems dispersed and impotent, their leader, the Lady in Blue, seemingly missing.

Like any great piece of detective fiction, the novel begins with a murder. A double-murder, in fact, and one that seems completely impossible. I won't give away any more details of the plot here, but Finch's searches for the truth will finally unravel the mystery of the Gray Caps, Duncan Shriek and Ambergris itself.

What I find to be one of the novel's great strengths is its indefinable nature. It fits into many, or no, sets of genres. A disturbing and thrilling amalgam of crime fiction, body horror, Blade Runner-esque neo-noir and dark fantasy, this is reflected in style of the writing; imagine Cormac McCarthy's stripped down style merged the hard-boiled trappings of Raymond Chandler, but describing horrific events worthy of Lovecraft. Pitch black detective fantasy that cannot be recommended enough.

Essential for any fans of the speculative fiction genre, or innovative new writing in general.