The blurb on the front cover of this particular edition says “If HP Lovecraft had collaborated with Raymond Chandler the result might have been something like this”- and it’s one of those rare cases where the blurb is right on the money.
Finch, our main character, is kind of a detective (though reluctantly), a collaborator in a world where humans are an enslaved race to alien masters – spore-based, mushroom-like nightmare creatures made more terrifyingly real by Mr. VanderMeer than any of Mr. Lovecraft’s monsters. He unwillingly gets caught up in the rebels’ plan to get rid of these overlords and he moves from being a tool in the gray caps’ hands to being a tool in the rebels’ hands, never having any actual control and never seeing the full picture, not even right at the end, when the world around him is falling apart (again, as it seems to do so frequently in Ambergris). And while this particular narration might seem familiar, tired even – I have to say it’s anything but. What’s absolutely fantastic about Mr. VanderMeer is the level of detail in which he’s constructed Ambergris and its history, both pre- and post-gray cap invasion: the war between the two ruling houses, the war against the Kalif, the gray caps’ unnoticed arrival and silent rise. Most humans (just as Finch in the beginning) don’t really understand what the gray caps want and simply ascribe human motives to their actions: power, greed, desire for influence – which in the end turns out to be a fairly big mistake. Perhaps if more had stopped to think, had understood, maybe Ambergris could have found a way out of their domination sooner – but then again, that’s not really how it works on Earth either 😉 Signs and solutions are always obvious in hindsight.
Finch’s relationship with Wyte (an accidental “partial” – cross between human and gray cap) is especially profound since they both know eachother’s identities and histories from before the Rising and it ends up being, with all its oddities, the most powerful and meaningful connection of the book – the only one where those involved actually choose to be around eachother and are not just thrown together by fate or randomness.
Mr. VanderMeer’s clipped, short sentences and his fragmented style add a certain urgency to the proceedings – even to his memories of his father – and the interrogation gimmick never lets you forget that there’s something bigger looming just around the corner. I’d only add that this result is probably even better than that imaginary meet of Lovecraft & Chandler –personally, I had the best time with it. The Guardian also enjoyed it – and probably others too, since it got nominated for a Locus award, but I’m too lazy to google more links.