City of Saints and Madmen, the first Ambergris book was my introduction to Jeff Vandermeer. The second, Shriek: An Afterward cemented him as one of my favorite writers, and is among my favorite books. Finch is a fitting conclusion. They span many genres, from faux-history guidebook to decadent third person memoir to noir. There are many narrators, nearly all of them unreliable, and often conflicting.
City of Saints and Madmen was one of the first books (along with Fifth Head of Cerberus and Pale Fire by Nabokov) that put the story suite/mosaic novel/fractured narrative book among my favorite storytelling techniques. I got the most recent (prior to the omnibus version) edition. The first iteration had four novellas and the subtitle The Book of Ambergris. The later edition had an appendix that was as long as the first part that had 11 or so short stories. The conflicting unreliable narrators were an ingenious way to display aspects of the City of Ambergris, an alternate world fantasy city state with no real central government that at the time the novellas are set is in an early modern period technologically. For a time artists, particularly an opera composer called Voss Bender, exerted a relatively high degree of control, though that was fading and in the conflicts that followed, the House of Hoegbotton and Sons, a mercantile interest that has been on the rise for decades begins to take over. The atmosphere is fungal and filled with spores. The city is in a decadent period socially. The buildings themselves are being colonized by various fungi. An apparently native race, the Mushroom Dwellers, or Greycaps, a fungal based species, have reemerged after decades, maybe centuries of absence. Their presence and plans are a mystery that plays out over the course of the three books.
For the omnibus, City of Saints and Madmen goes back to the “Book of Ambergris” edition reprinting the four novellas with the addition of one longish story from the appendix. I have mixed but mostly positive feelings about that. It weakens the book as work in itself; the interplay of those stories really adds a lot to one’s understanding of Ambergris and its history. But, as a prelude to the other two books, it really works. If you’re considering Ambergris as a single work, then these four set the stage well. (And I logged the shorter “Book of Ambergris” version on Goodreads as I didn’t read the rest of the Appendix this time. The book opens with Dradin in Love, the story of a monk who returns to Ambergris after a stint as a missionary in a jungle setting. He arrives during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, an annual event commemorating early Ambigrisian history. Some years violence erupts, and the Greycaps have something to do with this, though it’s not entirely clear from just this story what part that is. This is among the most violent on record. It’s an effective introduction to the city in addition to being a harrowing horror story written in a decadent style. Despite its third person narration, another of the stories reveals it to be a memoir written by Dradin himself. This starts the trend of the stories as actual published artifacts in the imagined world that continues throughout; the protagonist of Finch reads Shriek: An Afterward, for instance. The next novella purports to be a travel guide/brief introduction to the history of Ambergris, and this does a lot of the exposition heavy lifting in a way that is very enjoyable. It is written by a fringe historian named Duncan Shriek whose digressive footnotes keep this from being an infodump. Here the city’s founders are chronicled, the Monk Samuel Tonsure, whose journal is a key to the whole Ambergris cycle is introduced, and one of the central mysteries of the series The Silence is introduced. That last involves the complete disappearance of 25,000 citizens of the city. Many blame the Greycaps, many of whom were massacred by the early kings of Ambergris. That this history doesn’t feel like homework while setting the stage so well for the rest of the series is a remarkable accomplishment. The omnibus then inserts the story The Cage from the appendix. It’s the story of the first Hoegbotton to open a store called Hoegbotton and Sons in Ambergris and is a masterful weird tale. It stands alone, but introduces a major player, or at least the founder of an organization that is key to understanding the politics of the city. The Transformation of Martin Lake shows the bohemian artistic circle that formed around The New Art at a gallery owned by Janice Shriek, brother to Duncan Shriek who wrote the Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris. The final novella is the only one I have hesitations about. It’s about an author in an asylum that thinks he’s made up Ambergris and the world it’s in. I do like it, but I might have preferred to see a couple more of the stories from the appendix in the omnibus instead. I hope that the longer edition of this gets released again, but as prelude, this really works, each tale a weird one despite what other genres are mixed in. But in aggregate they provide the beginnings of the history, politics and feel of the place. It does in part what the series as a whole does. Coming at Ambergris from a variety of angles, the city that emerges lives in the mind.
If I could only keep ten books, Shriek: An Afterword would be one of them (or maybe the omnibus for context, but Shriek is the big draw for me). This is the most Nabokovian work I’ve read that wasn’t by Nabokov. And yet, as a weird horror story and fantasy thriller it does things that Nabokov never did. There’s a character named Sirin; an author, editor and shadow player in the politics called Sirin who is obsessed with, among other things, literary games. Sirin was a pseudonym used by Nabokov when he was writing in Europe. If the language and structure didn’t give away the Nabokovian influence, this certainly did. Aside from the fantasy/horror elements he adds, Vandermeer is more overtly political than Nabokov. The latter struck an apolitical pose, though all his work was informed by a hatred for the Bolsheviks who drove his family out of his native Russia, and politics did intrude into the works, most intensely in Bend Sinister. Nabokov is an avatar for fiction as art for art's sake. Vandermeer is as obsessed with art, and makes the art the primary point. But in the background of these books the ways politics impinges on art becomes undeniable.
The book begins as if Janice Shriek, introduced in The Transformation of Martin Lake, is writing an afterword to her brother’s historical guide to Ambergris. Like Nabokov’s masterwork Pale Fire, it cannot remain one thing though and becomes a family history and a chronicle of the first in what will eventually be revealed to be a series of Civil Wars between Hoegbotton and Sons and a rival mercantile operation trying to make inroads into Ambergris. The manuscript was found by Duncan, and he wrote responses to everything that Janice said about and their lives. Janice’s dissolute and debauched life runs parallel to her brothers rise to prominence as an historian obsessed with the Greycaps, the Silence and the city that exists under the city proper. His fall, in part, involves a decades long feud with a former student whom he slept with. It’s one of the few times the teacher/student relationship trope works, partly because the interplay between Duncan and Janice’s voices shows the ways in which he was deceiving himself as much as the school. War breaks out and everything changes. Duncan’s body becomes infested with fungus and he is gradually changing just as the city is. Both Shrieks become war reporters. The mystery of the Silence begins to come into focus even as war comes and goes and Janice and Duncan’s careers wane. This is a flat out masterpiece.
The third volume, Finch, is the most straightforward narratively, even as it adds another genre to the mix and another angle on the history of Ambergris and the prose becomes more fragmented. It is a straight noir that happens a century after the events of the two previous books. The Civil Wars had picked up again, a struggle that was made moot by the rising of the Greycaps to rule the city with fascist-like control. John Finch, not his real name, is a collaborator of sorts who works for the Greycaps. The book opens with a double murder, a human and a Greycap and his case is inseperable from the history of Ambergris. He’s caught between his cruel bosses, other collaborators called Partials (humans who have been colonized by fungi), forces from outside the city, and the revolutionaries who are fighting the Greycap regime. The city and its inhabitants are succumbing to the fungal spores that permeate the atmosphere. The deteriorating streets are as mean as any in Ellroy or Hammett. But like the other Ambergris books, it performs double duty as the history of an alternate world.
All in all, I can’t recommend the Ambergris books highly enough. I hope that City of Saints and Madmen gets a release in its fullest form at some point, but otherwise I have no hesitations here. These are the books that sold me on Vandermeer. The variety of genres and narrators at play reveal an alternate world as elaborate as any I’ve encountered. It’s political but not polemical. The narrative of colonization is subtle but powerful. It revels in art and language. It’s utterly compelling. Shriek at least is going on my yearly reread list. I’ve not read anything by Vandermeer that I didn’t at least like, but these (especially Shriek) and Dead Astronauts are his best for my money.
City of Saints and Madmen- Canon Worthy in this form, Canon in the more complete form. My final reread of 2020.
Shriek: An Afterward- Canon- Yearly Reread 2021 1/8, Rereads and Everything Else 2021 1/50
Finch- Canon- Rereads and Everything Else 2021 2/50