Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Mini book reviews: Finch by Jeff Vandermeer; and Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Now, Finch by Jeff Vandermeer?  This is one of the weirder books I've read in a looooooong time.  The book jacket is alive with glowing phrases and newly coined genres as folks try to define this novel:  "Fungal noir.  Steampunk delirium.  Paranoid spy thriller, quite literally, on 'shrooms." (Richard K. Morgan)  "[Noir] ... with flashes of Raymond Chandler and The Thing."  (Meg Gardiner)  "... Farewell, My Lovely if Philip Marlowe worked for the pod people while snacking on Alice's Wonderland mushrooms." (Tad Williams)  To all that, I would add that if Dashiell Hammett wrote a Brazil/Blade Runner/Terminator novel with giant, mobile, sentient fungi as the bad guys, he might have come up with something like Finch.

Finch is an unwilling detective, forced into the job in the post-apocalypse after his city (country? world?) has been overrun with and overtaken by giant, mobile, sentient fungi, the graycaps.  In this time and place, the city's human rebels are scattered and ineffective, citizens are being put into detention camps and forced to build two looming towers, horrific half human/half fungus beings known as "Partials" roam the city, reporting back to their graycap masters.  Finch's partner and old friend, Wyte, has been infected by spores and is transforming into ... something else, right in front of Finch's eyes.  There is no power, no food, no money, no hope.

In the middle of all of this, Finch is assigned to a mysterious double murder in which a dead man and half of a dead graycap have been discovered in an abandoned apartment.  The graycaps don't expect Finch to solve this case - hell, he isn't interested in solving it, he just wants to write his reports and keep his head down.  But Finch is inexorably drawn into a sea of espionage, extortion, torture and rebellion and it's all he can do to keep his head above water.

I told you it was weird.  Walking, talking, oppressing mushrooms, ferchrissakes?  And yet Vandermeer pulls it off.  It took me a long time to get into this novel.  The language Vandermeer uses is foreshortened, clipped, uber-hardboiled and terse - and yet the images he crafts are fantastic (in all senses of that word) and the dialogue rings absolutely true to the genre.  Whatever genre this science fiction/fantasy/hardboiled detective fiction/horror story might call its own.  Finch is not for everyone - it's challenging and somewhat tiring - but I'm awfully glad I stuck with it as I've never read anything quite like it before.

In Summer Knight: Book Four of The Dresden Files, author Jim Butcher brings us back to the world of Harry Dresden.  It's sort of a rough place right now: Harry is ignoring his friends and his clients, hiding away in his basement laboratory to try to discover a cure for near-vampirism so he can save his girlfriend Susan.  Susan was bitten and infected by vampires at the end of the last Dresden Files book, and Harry is guilt-ridden, his overwrought sense of chivalry insisting that Susan's attack was all his fault.  He hasn't showered or changed his clothes in over a week; he can't pay rent on either his office or his apartment.  Plus the Red Court vampires are still trying to assassinate him whenever he does poke his head above ground.  And there was a downpour of toads earlier that means seismic magical shifts are imminent.  If ever straits were dire, these would be them.

Luckily, Harry is about to get a new client: Mab, the Queen of the Winter Faerie.  Mab has been framed for killing the Summer Knight (ooh! title!), the Queen of the Summer Faerie's go-to guy, and she wants Harry to find out who really did it.  He is loathe to get any more involved than he has to with faeries but since he's also in serious trouble with the White Council of Wizards - as in, they're thinking about executing him trouble - he finagles a deal: if he helps Mab, her people have to help the wizards in the upcoming battle against the vampires. 

And so it begins, with Harry getting support from the regular cast - his cop pal, Karrin Murphy, who is still physically and emotionally scarred from the last book; Billy and his pack of werewolves; Bob the Skull; Toot-Toot the pixie - and meeting about a million new characters, changelings, trolls, winter and summer faeries, centaurs, ghouls, evil ents on acid ... Butcher has a LOT going on here and while I confess to turning some of the pages pretty quickly once we got to the big Sidhe battle in the Never-Never, the fact that he manages to keep everything straight and moving is impressive.

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