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?) Continue reading Jeff VanderMeer, Finch