by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 25, 2020
Edits and Addendum on November 2, 4, & 5
1. City of Saints and Madmen / 2. Shriek: An Afterword / 3. Finch
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Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris will be published December 1. It is an omnibus volume containing three previously published books, at least the first of which has had several editions. The first of them, City of Saints and Madmen, is a collection of stories, mostly novellas I believe, originally released in 2001, with a revised and expanded version the following year, then another in '04. The second edition included an untitled story printed on the dustcover jacket, which incorporated VanderMeer's name and the collection's title in the text toward the bottom of the front cover. As far as I know that is the only place that story ever appeared. There was also a UK edition, but I'm not sure how that compared to any of the others. The original was a finalist for a Locus Award for Best Collection in 2002, and the revised edition nabbed nominations for the World Fantasy Award, and SF Site's Reader's Poll for '03. SF Site is similar to Locus, featuring genre news, reviews, and critical essays. They previously had also hosted official web pages for many writers, but that was suspended several years ago, and the last reader's poll was in 2013.
I've had a trade paperback of City for at least a couple of years, but had not read it yet. Edelweiss offered an ARC of the new omnibus, so I figured it was time. Thinking there might be even more revisions, I started reading the ARC on my Kindle, but switched back to the paperback for one section in order to read the many (more than 125) footnotes at the bottom of the pages, which were held to the end of that section in the e-book. More on that later. The cover images below are from earlier trade paperbacks, City being the 2004 revised version that I have, and the others are what I would have if I had purchased them in print on first publication. City and Shriek are still available from various sources, maybe even new, although they're technically not still in print. Finch has been out of print for several years, with used copies fetching fairly high prices. I'm providing Bookshop and Amazon links only for the new omnibus; I'll leave it to the reader to search out earlier editions on their own if they wish. I'll explain why you might want to do that for the first book at least. Using the links provided will tag your search to our affiliate accounts, so we may earn a commission even for used copies.
The original collection included four stories, and an introduction by Michael Moorcock. Never having seen that edition, I'm not sure if it included the Ambergris Glossary. The revised edition added an appendix which doubled the page count, the glossary coming at the end. In addition to its award nominations as a collection, at least four of the stories received recognition on their own. I've searched for more information concerning prior publication, and it seems most were either self-published, or in small press publications.
It's difficult to decide how to categorize this book. It is a fantasy in the sense it takes place in a fictional city, in an alternate world, although it could be another planet. If it is supposed to be Earth it's in an alternate dimension, since descriptions of the continents are distinctly different. It's somewhat like a hallucinatory dream, and since mushrooms play a major part you might suspect the author indulged in some potent 'shrooms himself, which led to visions of the mythical Ambergris. We get a history of the city in the second section, "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris" by Duncan Shriek. Hoegbotton & Sons was a import/export dealer, and a publisher of travel guides, among other things. Ambergris is a secretion of sperm whales traditionally used in perfumery, and some coveted it as an aphrodisiac. The city that bears that name sits on land stolen from the "gray caps," the mushroom dwellers of Cinsorium, although it is possible that word might ought to have been spelled Sensorium.
Ambergris's founder was John Manzikert, a whaling captain who moved north from the Southern Seas into the River Moth, due to both volcanic activity in the south, and his conflicts with a rival captain. After killing many of the gray caps and establishing his domain, Manzikert's title morphed into Cappan, and all of his successors used that title as well. The expoits of Manzikert, and his sons and other family that succeeded him, include the era known as The Silence, several generations removed from the original colonization. The Cappan of that time and some of his soldiers set out on a military campaign against another city, and when they returned Ambergris was empty. Unbeknownst to the Cappan, his wife had taken her retinue north on a hunting expedition, and when she returned her husband had gone underground thinking the mushroom dwellers had kidnapped rather than killed the citizenry. A little of both actually. When he resurfaces, he declares the gray caps a protected group, which leads everyone else to consider him mad, possibly even a doppelganger. The history is the part I read in the paperback, mainly due to the many footnotes, which are at least as long as the history itself. There are a lot of contradictions and misdirection in the footnotes, and comical asides, enough that they reminded me of another comical history, Will Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. In the ARC the footnotes came at the end of this section, making it difficult to track the references.
The first story is "Dradin, in Love" from 1996, a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Dradin is a missionary who had suffered from a jungle fever, then when recovered he travels to Ambergris to consult with his mentor, Cadimon Signal, with the intention of seeking another position. Signal had taught him at the Morrow Religious Institute; Morrow is a city to the south of Ambergris. Several of the names of people and places sound British, or maybe American (another town is Stockton), but there are others that sound Asian. Another town is Nicea, which in our world was in what today is Turkey. Some descriptions made me think it was similar to Southeast Asia, others possibly Africa or South America, but as I said before, this is an alternate world, but the parallels to our world's colonialist period are unmistakable. Dradin falls in love at first sight, with a woman he sees in a third story window of Hoegbotton & Sons. He is shy, and gullible, so he allows a dwarf he meets on the street to take messages to her, to arrange a meeting. He is appalled, but also should have been made wary and skeptical, when the dwarf asks him if he wants to buy her. I was, and it gave me a clue as to the nature of the woman, which later proved to be mostly accurate. Along with his romantic pursuit of a woman only glanced from afar, the story delves into other aspects of Ambergris: the mushroom dwellers, who are still around and live underground; Voss Bender, a writer/composer who later moves into politics, and is mentioned in several of the stories. Dradin is also mentioned briefly in a later story. Some of Dradin's experiences could be explained as hallucinations brought on by inhaling fungal spores while lost in the city, and his last actions might indicate he's gone a little mad.
The other story that mentions Dradin is "The Transformation of Martin Lake," which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2000. Lake is an artist, or at least wished to be considered such, but he had subsisted on meager commissions for several years. His fertile period blossomed after the death of Voss Bender, whom he had met on only one occasion. Bender figures prominently in his later paintings. Dradin had commissioned Lake for an artwork, although I can't recall now the nature of what he wanted, but I assume this story is set after the first. In addition to all the turmoil surrounding the death of Bender, who had been both wildly popular and vehemently reviled in life, this story is also a penetrating portrait of the artist, both before and after he found his muse. Parts of the story are Lake's experiences, others are excerpts of reviews of his later work, written by gallery owner and art critic Janice Shriek, sister of Duncan, the author of the History. A lot has been said about literary fiction, as if that's a genre unto itself. I think that's BS, since literary style can be, and has been, applied to almost every genre imaginable. And most definitely VanderMeer has employed it here. This is my favorite story from the collection, although a couple of others from the appendix come close.
The fourth story could be described as a meta parody. "The Strange Case of X" is written in both first and third person, the first from the perspective of an investigator interviewing a suspect identified only as X, who may or may not be VanderMeer himself. X talks about his early life in the Fiji Islands (VanderMeer lived there when his parents were in the Peace Corps), as well as previous experiences in Chicago, New York, and Florida (where the author lives now). X says that he absolutely does not believe Ambergris exists, it's only a product of his imagination. Yet he is accused of a crime in Ambergris, which might also relate to something that occurred in the "real" world. The alternate explanation is that X is Sirin, a writer/editor, who might have been Duncan Shriek's editor. I need to re-read it to figure out who the investigator is. I've read only brief descriptions of Finch, but since he is a detective, maybe he's the interrogator here. Or maybe not, since Finch is set later in the sequence. Then again, I'm not sure of the chronological sequence of the stories. Of the three novellas (not counting the history), they seem to be in order, but others presented in the appendix come earlier, unless I'm mistaken.
Unless they are stealthily hidden in the ARC and I haven't stumbled across them yet, quite a bit of the appendix that is in the paperback is not included in the ARC. Of the ones that are, the best is "The Cage." The version that appeared in the second edition was a finalist for the Southeastern Science Fiction Achievment Award. I think it's a novella too, approximately the same length as "The Strange Case of X." I'm sure it is set earlier than "Dradin, in Love." The protagonist of the story is Richard Hoegbotton, whose company already has "& Sons" in its name, even though he has yet to have children. Two things that point to this being much earlier in the sequence; in "Dradin" the company is in a building that has a least three floors, maybe more, whereas here it's only two. Hoegbotton either added on to his building or moved to another location. Also, while I would have thought more years had passed since The Silence, Richard Hoegbotton is only five generations removed from that event, just a bit more than a hundred years. In a room next to his office he has recreated the dining room of his great-great-grandfather, just as it was when he and his family disappeared. Hoegbotton & Sons is just in its beginning, with two other rival companies, which later are forced out of business. Richard began the business by purchasing items for resale, most often at estate sales. At one of them he acquires a large cage, apparently empty and covered with a cloth. Yet it is extremely heavy, and others remark they've heard noises coming from within, although it appears empty whenever he looks under the cover. Another hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness story, mainly dealing with the incursion of the mushroom dwellers, and the spread of fungal spores. I need to re-read this one too, in order to determine if I understand exactly what is happening at the end.
I have not read all of the paperback's appendix, and will hold off on that for a while. I did read a few things that are not in the ARC, unless they've been given another title, or incorporated into another chapter. The first entry in the appendix is "A Letter from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin," then later "A Note from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin," which incorporates the short "The Man Who Had No Eyes." The latter is in the ARC. [EDIT: A PS to the first letter mentions X's journal, which includes story ideas later incorporated into the third book.] A lot of the appendix is random articles from various publications, the page counts unique to each segment and not continuous through the appendix, and some sections have no page numbers at all. Several are presented as if facsimiles out of books or newspapers, and in the case of the letters from Dr. V, direct from his own typewriter. Other than the glossary, the last entry in the appendix is "Learning to Leave the Flesh," considered a proto-Ambergris story. VanderMeer wrote it in 1992 at the Clarion Writer's Workshop, and it has only appeared in the 2004 paperback. Ambergris is not mentioned but the River Moth is, as well as Albumuth Boulevard, the major road through the center of Ambergris. Other than "The Cage," the longest section of the appendix is "King Squid," which includes multiple articles and illustrations about the freshwater squid common to the River Moth, which is the focus of a yearly celebration in Ambergris. I may read the rest of the appendix before moving on to the second part of the ARC, Shriek: An Afterword, but a few other books will come before that.
I realize this is more synopsis than review, but the basic thing I want to say is it's highly recommended. The prose is crisp and clear, even when the events it depicts are not. The emotions of all characters are vividly rendered, even peripheral characters. The atmosphere of Ambergris is palbable, whether in bright daylight, or oppressive spring rains, or the mysterious nighttime when the gray caps emerge to do their mischief. There is much I could have said, and I may add comments later to this section, as well as continue with the two novels. A lot of that would be more synopsis of course, such as Voss Bender, his operas, his political career, how he both inspired and outraged the citizens of Ambergris. Janice Shriek's descriptions of Martin Lake's paintings are a marvel all by themselves, even when she completely misses the point behind them. I know it won't appeal to everyone, and there might have been an earlier time I wouldn't have appreciated it as I do now. Yes, it's literary, but in the most positive way I could possibly use that term. Brilliant, dense and verbose at times, but utterly fascinating. I've had less positive things to say about a couple of recent VanderMeer books, but this wowed me just as much as the Southern Reach trilogy. When I finished that I was in acceptance mode, both for VanderMeer's talent, and the feeling I might be trapped in Area X for a long time. Right now I want to move to Ambergris.
Posted on November 2, 2020:
Shriek: An Afterword, originally published in 2006, was a finalist for a Locus award. The title refers to Duncan Shriek, the author of the Early History of Ambergris in the first book. His sister Janice is writing the afterword, or at least attempting to do so, but it evolves (devolves?) into more of a history of the Shriek siblings. She might also have been using it as a form of therapy for herself. She idolized Duncan, felt he had a good grasp on his worth and his destiny, but she was forever adrift in a world she didn't understand, and that did not understand her. Events from their childhood in Stockton, and their adult years in Ambergris, are related in random order, and there is quite a bit of repetition. Multiple times she implores the reader to let her start over, but also multiple times she begins rambling again about almost everything other than Duncan's History. Since that had appeared in the first book I had assumed it was one of his earlier writings, but it's actually among the last. He had written several books published by a company in Stockton, Frankwrithe & Lewden, then others later by Hoegbotton & Sons of Ambergris. Both publishers eventually rejected subsequent work as inconsequential, outlandish, on the verge of insanity, but Duncan was convinced he had a grasp on the true nature of the gray caps, and what that meant for the future of humanity in Ambergris.
After Janice completed her work she disappeared, likely hoping to find her brother who had disappeared months earlier. Yet Duncan somehow came back, found her manuscript, and made his own notations, all without being seen by anyone. The final book was only slightly edited by Sirin, Duncan's sometime editor at Hoegbotton, who leaves almost all of Duncan's comments within parantheses, the first of which is in the very first paragraph. Some of his notes are just a few words in the middle of a paragraph, or at the end of a paragraph, but on more than one occasion Duncan's comments comprise multiple paragraphs on their own. Throughout the elliptical narrative are hints and clues about Duncan's preoccupation with the gray caps, his career as a professor, his affair with one of his students, which continues after he is fired for the indiscretion. Janice also relates her on again, off again career as art critic and gallery owner, as well as when she and Duncan were journalists during the War of the Houses. The rival merchant Houses are, among other activities, the two publishers of Duncan's books, both of which have also taken on military and government functions. That war is interrupted by The Occupation, when the Kalif from a land to the west invades, causing the two Houses to unite against the mutual threat. Before, during, and after, there are also incursions by the gray caps, which leads to The Shift. The comments about that are very vague, although I think I know to what it refers since I've already read some of the next book.
A wikipedia article quotes VanderMeer as saying it took about eight years to write, mainly due to plot elements that were very personal, although that entry ends with "citation needed." I think it might have something to do with his family, both his sister and his parents. One scene made me think of the fact he spent several childhood years in the Fiji Islands while his parents were in the Peace Corps. Duncan and Janice often refer to things as having occurred BDD (Before Dad Died). The elder Shriek was distant to his children due to his work, but not abusive, and seemed to have a respectful and supportive relationship with their mother. I can understand the difficulty in writing about a certain event in Janice's life if someone VanderMeer knew also experienced it. One thing that shines through is the love between Janice and Duncan, even during some very turbulent times, including that Janice had a very negative opinion of the woman Duncan loved, whom Duncan continued to love even after he was rejected. Not only did Mary Sabon leave him, she capitalized on some of his earlier work while at the same time mocking his ideas. In the first paragraph of the book Janice quotes Mary as saying about Duncan, "He is not a human being at all, but composed entirely of digressions and transgressions." The digressions part certainly applies to VanderMeer's style here, sometimes incoherent, discursive, and recursive, but ultimately satisfying, passionate and compassionate. It doesn't matter if the details of Ambergris, the gray caps, and the Shriek's lives are fantasies, they are rendered in prose that makes them just as meaningful as any true life events. Highly recommended.
Posted November 5, 2020
What I said above about assuming I knew to what The Shift referred, now I'm not so certain, mainly because that term is not used at all in Finch. Also, I had guessed that Finch might have been the interrogator in "The Strange Case of X," since he is a detective, but if so that story is set much later in the sequence than any of the others in the first book. "The Cage" was set about 100-125 years after The Silence, which means "Dradin" and "Martin Lake" are about 600 years after that pivotal event. At the beginning of this book I was thinking it was shortly after Duncan and Janice Shriek disappeared, but it's actually about 100 years later. The wars between Hoegbotton & Sons, Frankwrithe & Lewden, the Kalif, and the gray caps, continued to flare up every few years, without any long term victories by any of the combatants. It seemed to be implied that The Shift was when the gray caps emerged from underground on a permanent basis, taking over control of Ambergris, but it might also concern humans becoming more infected by the mushroom spores, transitioning into hybrid creations. All of that might be part of the truth, but now I'm not clear when the gray caps exerted their control. Was it right after Janice Shriek's account, or not until shortly before Finch begins? On several occasions throughout the book Finch declares he is not a detective, and yet he is in one way. He had been a Hoegbotton courier during one of the previous conflicts, but has been appointed as a detective by the Heretic, one of the gray caps in charge, with the old Hoegbotton headquarters turned into the new police precinct house. There are other human detectives, as well as one of Finch's former comrades who is slowly being transformed by invasive spores into something quite different, but also not the same type of different as the Partials, those who have submitted to the gray caps, allowing themselves to be transformed in specific ways.
Another confusing book, but in a good way, continually keeping me guessing what would happen next, as well as making me question things I had previously thought about past events. In addition to human detectives, hybrids, Partials, and gray caps, there are multiple other characters and factions. Perhaps multiple rebel forces, and I'm still not sure which group certain characters were aligned with, or whether some were alone following their own agenda. Several believe they have information concerning the true nature of the gray caps, but it's not clear if the clues come together to form a cohesive theory. If some are true, it makes the story more science fiction than fantasy, but I won't commit to that. Duncan Shriek's theory was that the gray caps were from another time and/or place, transported to this world by a machine, and all their efforts had been to recreate that machine so they could return to their rightful home. Shriek may have found at least a part of that machine, and used it to travel through invisible doors. Finch is assigned a murder case involving a human and a gray cap found together in an Ambergris apartment. Part of the investigation involves consuming a "memory bulb" grown on the human body after an injection of spores. Too many of the things that Finch experiences may only be in his head, influenced by that memory bulb, as well as multiple times he is drugged by others trying to get information out of him. I'm also confused as to why his partner was so transformed, but Finch relatively unaffected. I would have thought that everyone would have been, considering the amount of spores in the atmosphere. To add to the confusion, each chapter of Finch (except for the last one) begin with a short segment of someone interrogating Finch, but it's not clear who the questioner is, or when the interrogation is taking place.
Finch was originally published in 2009, was a finalist for Nebula, World Fantasy, and Locus awards, and came in seventh in the SF Site's Reader Poll for 2010. Considering it's been over ten years, and this omnibus is being promoted as the definitive Ambergris, I'm assuming VanderMeer won't be contributing any further additions to the story. This ends on an unresolved point, so it's up to the reader to visualize the conclusion, but I think it will take several re-readings before I'll be able to hazard a guess as to who (or what) is coming through the portal between the two towers the gray caps have constructed. If in fact the gray caps are responsible. Perhaps others co-opted their design for their own purposes. When I do re-read, and if I think I have an answer to that, I'll update this page. My confusion is the reason I rated this book only four stars, but the other two books are strong enough to warrant the full five stars for the trilogy as a whole. Again, the omnibus edition will be published next month, December 1, 2020. It is recommended.
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