The fantasy genre is the last redoubt of the three-volume novel. Your local Barnes and Noble contains shelves of geography-spanning tomes–most longer than they should be–split into threes. There is no sensible reason for this… but the book that inadvertently invented Fantasy as a marketing category was The Lord of the Rings, and the form passed from the first hack imitators of Tolkien into tradition. Even good fantasy writers work in the multivolume format by default1.
So I love Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Trilogy (City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch): three different books about the same world that combine, Voltron-like, into something greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s weird that more fantasy series don’t work this way. We get few novels2 about any given fantasy world, all written by the same author and therefore sharing a family resemblance. But why are they so often slices of a single story, and almost always written in the same style? Walk over to the “Literature” section and you’ll see a near-infinite variety of novels set in the real world, about all kinds of events, starring innumerable people, written in every possible kind of prose. The world is not one thing. A city is not one thing. Why shouldn’t an invented world be seen from many perspectives, described in many styles?
So City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of literary short stories. Shriek: An Afterword chronicles the lives of two underachieving siblings, told in alternating, arguing voices, with bigger things going on in the background…
And Finch is a hard-boiled detective novel, set after the Gray Caps, the mushroomy original inhabitants of Ambergris, have taken over the city. And it’s great–Finch is everything a hard boiled detective novel involving intelligent fungus ought to be. The Gray Cap overseers send John Finch, a tired steampunk Humphrey Bogart, to solve a murder. Finch bounces from faction to faction and picks up pieces of the puzzle from various interesting people who proceed to beat him up or knock him out. Everybody wants his help. Nobody asks for it without a threat.
The prose in the first two Ambergris books was straightforwardly literary (with digressions into reference-book style for certain parts of City of Saints and Madmen). Finch is written in short, sharp sentences. Sometimes sentence fragments. Telegraphese. There are food shortages and power cuts and Finch can’t spare the resources for a coordinating conjunction.
(I get a little more into analysis after this point, and some of it is spoilery, so I’m putting the rest of the review behind a link. Just go read the book, okay?)
John Finch’s real name is not John Finch. He isn’t alone in this. A lot of people in Ambergris have aliases–Finch, Bliss, Stark… Ambergrisians tend to have meaningful names. On a functional level, this gives Ambergris a Dickensian flavor, and, as in Dickens, creates associations that affect the readers’ mental images of the characters. Within the fiction, readers might start to wonder how many people in this city are living under names they chose for themselves.
Finch has reasons why he might not want his real name known. He’s ditched everything that would link him to his former life, buried his history. We know he’s in real trouble when one of the factions knows his name. They know his past. They control his present.
When the Gray Caps rose and took Ambergris, they destroyed books. When Cappan Manzikert destroyed the Grey Cap city of Cinsorium to found Ambergris on the rubble, he destroyed the Grey Caps’ books (a lot like what happened to the Mayans in the real world). The Gray Caps before him took the land from a couple of native human tribes, and though they’re still around no one seems to know or care much about them. History is the thread connecting the volumes of the Ambergris trilogy. City of Saints and Madmen includes a history of the city, a history of the Hoegbotton family, a glossary, and a monograph on squid. In Shriek: An Afterword historians fight over duelling versions of Ambergris history–which will be accepted? What inconvenient facts will be left out or ignored? In Finch, control over what Ambergris remembers and what gets shoved down the memory hole–the control of history–is a weapon.
(If the idea that Ambergris doesn’t know its own history seems farfetched, you might want to read a few books by James Loewen. At least Ambergris’s ignorance was imposed upon it; in the U.S., this is something we did to ourselves.)
It’s never the focus of VanderMeer’s human-scale stories, but Ambergris exists in a near-perpetual state of conflict. Gang warfare between the merchant houses erupts into open civil war. Sometimes the northern Kalif or the Gray Caps take advantage of the chaos to invade. The original sin of that very first conquest is reenacted over and over again on the same ground. Maybe the wounds won’t heal until Ambergris knows its true history, studies it, and refuses to look away.
Ambergris is due for another toss in the endless game of political keep-away. Finch’s neighbor has saved a small library’s worth of books. When the next takeover begins she and Finch are there to see it. Someone’s paid attention for once… but then again, so did Duncan Shriek, and it didn’t do much for his career. Is this enough for Ambergris to someday break the cycle? Finch’s last lines are dubious. I’d like to think there’s hope for the place. (I’d like to think there’s hope for us.)