I’ve been a Jeff VanderMeer fan ever since I read the novella Dradin, In Love. It had so many of the things I love: a mad, unreliable narrator; weird setting; lush worldbuilding; and a perfect, simple, brutally honest reveal that told you mountains about the narrator and what he really wanted out of life.
There were some fun stories in City of Saints and Madmen, but I didn’t love any of them the same way I did Dradin. After Dradin, I loved Veniss, Underground best. More twisted scenery, broken narrators, piles of bodies and darkness and did I mention the broken people? The Situation was another delightful read for me, which took all the weird worldbuilding and set it on top of a workplace satire that any desk jockey could relate to.
The thing with much of VanderMeer’s fiction is that most of the narrators are not likable. You don’t read VanderMeer if you want to read about heroes (his most heroic character is probably Shadrach from Veniss, Underground. Probably, again, one of the most honest heroes I’ve encountered in fiction in awhile. Heroism is about doing what you know is right, not doing something because you believe you’ll get something out of it – whether it’s fame or riches or, in this case, the girl).
And that brings us to Finch.
Finch isn’t a hero. He was so much of a non-hero that I found myself, at best, ambivalent about him. Even when we find out his prior identity, it’s really not terribly interesting.
What Finch has is an incredible, amazing, nightmare-inducing world the likes of which I haven’t experienced since Veniss, Underground. The book would literally give me weird dreams when I read it before bed. Only reading Lovecraft has ever given me those same dark, slippery sorts of nightmares. The ones that crawl around in your head and whisper crazy things that leave you feeling a bit dirty and confused come morning.
Finch is a strong book, and probably one of the best plotted I’ve seen from VanderMeer. If you can get past the unlikeable main character, there’s a whole hideous new world here to sink your teeth into. It’s not pretty. It’s not heroic. It doesn’t make any sense. And that’s what makes it so scary.
VanderMeer’s venomous mushroom folk are true aliens, the kind whose powers and technology and motives you realize you’ll never be certain of (they actually lose a little of their scariness toward the end when we get too much telling about their motives, but I’m not sure how tension could have been sustained without knowing something about what they were doing). I love their slimy memory holes, their leaky organic guns, the edible bullets (edible bullets!!), the addictive mushroom fumes, the contaminated areas.
This book is fantasy worldbuilding at its best.
I had some issues with the narrative – particularly how the protagonist seemed to be pushed and pulled and used by other forces, which, again, made him so much less heroic (being a used object is always less heroic than being an active agent), but that’s a personal preference in my heroes. This hero was purposely non-heroic, and he stayed that way the whole way through. It reminded me a little of Hobb’s title character in the Assassin books – it’s a story about the catalyst for change, not about the heroes.
I was also pleased to see a big leap here in the quality of VanderMeer’s heroines. Ya’ll might not have noticed this, but it was something I took issue with very early on (and was what sparked my initial correspondence with VanderMeer).
Shriek had a female narrator, but, alas, she was just so dislikable for me that I was never able to finish the book. Finch was, to me, a stronger and more engaging book, and I ate it up like candy. It also had some really engaging female supporting characters. The possibly-turncoat-lover – who made the leap from “Yawn, it’s the woman who exists to have sex with the hero” stereotype to full-blown character with one particularly cutting line toward the end (very a much a “The women men don’t see” type of line), the bookish information gatherer with her own secrets, and the rebel queen, of course (every good book needs a rebel queen). All three were strong, complex people that really stood out for me along the way, and, I think, greatly contributed to my enjoyment of the book (rebel queeeeeeeeen!).
That said, this isn’t a book for everybody. It’s weird. It’s grotesque. It will, likely, give you nightmares. And Finch, the character, is kind of boring.
Ambergris is not boring. It’s amazing. And the civil war, mushroom war, and life-in-alien-occupied-Ambergris-slice-of-life is so incredibly worth reading if you’re a lover of intense worldbuilding that I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Of course there are also some plot holes, a little over-explaining at the end, and some dues-ex-machina-ing (also at the end), and a few too many nods to Shriek (which, as noted, I didn’t finish), and there’s that protagonist thing….
But if you love the type of fantasy that takes you somewhere else… with something else, Finch is a very fine romp.