Monday, June 28, 2010


by Jeff Vandermeer

My first reading of Vandermeer, his latest novel, as well as one shortlisted for the Nebula in 2010. I was quite impressed, it’s a well constructed story with intense and engaging characterization and some fascinating skills in worldbuilding. What it benefits from above all is vividness, being able to make the physically impossible not just coherent but utterly believable through the intensity and force of the writing. Vandermeer is on the more literary side of speculative fiction, but he also does so from within the genre as opposed to an outsider, and the results are as wildly creative as they are engaging. Similar appeal in the storycrafting to China Mieville in a number of ways, if not quite as excellent.

In either case, this book makes an interesting companion piece to The City & the City, plus Manual of Detection. Definitely a lot of playing around with the form of the noir narrative in 2009. Finch was quite a unique experience, some great worldbuilding and putting quite a decent atmosphere for the city. It's also a bit surprising looking back that it didn't feel like a particularly depressing story, despite how bleak the setting and scenario was. In large part, this is because of how interesting things are. It’s far from just another urban fantasy, of titanic binaries between rather stupid forces of good and evil. Instead the protagonist is adrift in a world of moral complexity and a murky, atmospheric ambiguity, where everyone must come to accomodation with the alien and oppressive regime, whre he can only slowly grapple through to some independence and some sense of what’s really going on.
Fairly good characterization as well--as mentioned in an earlier review I often get quickly fed up with a given hard-boiled cynical urban noir detective, but there here was enough oddity in the role and slowly revealed backstory to make for quite an interesting lead. Ultimately, though, the true character is the invented city, and here the story just revells in all the potential in mystery and fantasy tropes alike. The gray caps are a particularly engaging, if grotesque, invention, at once highly pitiful and flat out terrifying. There are a lot of advantages to a story that begins not with a magic alien invasion but after the invasion has been won and the strange lifeforms have an established bureaucracy, and Finch follows through on this setup admirably.

Better than: The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon
Worse than: The City & the City by China Mieville

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