Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer

Several years ago, when I first discovered the rabbit-hole of weird fiction and dove into it face-first, one of the first authors/editors I discovered was Jeff Vandermeer. I read Veniss Underground, his bizarre, post-cyberpunk re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. This quickly led to me snapping up every book with Vandermeer stamped on the cover.

It was City of Saints and Madmen that really blew me away. Vandermeer had created a fictional city of wonder, called Ambergris. This mosaic work of fiction was made up of novellas and short stories that all worked together to paint a portrait of a fantastic city with many secrets, most notably the Gray Caps, a mysterious race that resembles a cross between humans and mushrooms. Vandermeer continued the Ambergris saga with Shriek: An Afterword, which despite being the weakest book in the series is still a good read. Shriek is also written unlike any novel I have encountered before. The majority of the book is narrated by Janice Shriek, an art critic introduced in City of Saints and Madmen, as a biography/autobiography of her brother Duncan Shriek (a historian with a Gray Cap obsession) and herself, while Duncan fills in her manuscript with his own commentary in brackets. The result is a layered novel that is told in two different, although intertwined voices.

For some reason, I waited until now to read Finch, although I've heard over and over about how great it was, and it certainly lived up to the hype. Continuing the trend, Vandermeer took yet a different narrative approach with Finch, one that was much more mainstream in it's delivery. Best described by Richard Morgan as "fungal noir", Finch is a hard-boiled detective story like no other. Vandermeer sets Finch several decades after Shriek, in a time where the Gray Caps have risen up to conquer Ambergris. John Finch is a detective grudgingly working for the Gray Caps and keeping many of his own secrets. When his Gray Cap boss sets him on a bizarre murder case involving a dead man and a dead Gray Cap found lying side by side in an abandoned apartment building, Finch finds himself drawn into a plot which will forever change Ambergris.

Finch has excellent pacing, a good amount of action and several shady characters. The story is told in clipped sentences, and although it is told in the third person it captures the stereotypical gruff voice of a hard-boiled detective. It's narrative style makes it the most accessible of the Ambergris cycle, and although it can be enjoyed on it's own it is most rewarding to those who read the first two, as Finch wraps up some loose ends and sheds light on the Gray Cap mysteries which were introduced in the first two books.

Finch is an excellent example of Vandermeer's many literary talents; the style, setting, plot, tone and characters all align to create a fun noir like no other.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: Where Furnaces Burn by Joel Lane

On November 26, the weird fiction community had a shock when writer Joel Lane passed away in his sleep. I never had the chance to know him on a personal level, but his work was powerful, every story of his left an impression on me. A few days before his passing I picked up Where Furnaces Burn, which won the World Fantasy Award for best collection only a few weeks earlier.

Where Furnaces Burn consists of twenty-six short stories, some new for the collection and others having been published previously since 2004. The stories, which stand well enough on their own, come together to create a rich tapestry of one man's bizarre experiences while a member of the police force in Birmingham, UK.

Joel seems at home taking readers through landscapes of urban decay, and he captures the senses of despair and hopelessness with ease. The unnamed narrator is a flawed man in a decaying marriage that seems destined to fail from the start, and each story represents a different case he has worked on. The majority of the stories play with the sense of "thin places" and some are, in a way, ghost stories, although they are in no way traditional.

All of the stories are short, and the majority are eight to ten pages in length. Although all the stories are cut from the same cloth in terms of tone, they manage to be a diverse lot without a bad one in the bunch. They are all powerful pieces, and I enjoyed savoring them a few at a time.It is also interesting to read the stories in mostly chronological order (not publication order) and seeing how personally involved/obsessed the narrator becomes with some of the abnormal cases he seems to attract, and it's clear that they affect him on a deep level.

Joel Lane will be sorely missed; his voice was one of a kind. By all accounts he was a wonderful gentleman, and I'm sad that I will never have the chance to meet him. While the community mourns the loss of such a talented man, there are many who are honoring him in the best of ways: by reading his fiction and essays. I couldn't recommend this one enough, and readers should also grab The Witnesses Are Gone, a novella that I adore.