In Finch, mysterious underground inhabitants known as the gray caps have reconquered the failed fantasy state Ambergris and put it under martial law. They have disbanded House Hoegbotton and are controlling the human inhabitants with strange addictive drugs, internment in camps, and random acts of terror. The rebel resistance is scattered, and the gray caps are using human labor to build two strange towers. Against this backdrop, John Finch, who lives alone with a cat and a lizard, must solve an impossible double murder for his gray cap masters while trying to make contact with the rebels. Nothing is as it seems as Finch and his disintegrating partner Wyte negotiate their way through a landscape of spies, rebels, and deception. Trapped by his job and the city, Finch is about to come face to face with a series of mysteries that will change him and Ambergris forever.
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Finch, the eponymous detective hero of Jeff Vandermeer’s hallucinatory novel, has the unenviable task of investigating a double murder where only one victim is human. The other is a “gray cap,” member of a race of sentient fungal beings who are the occupying forces of the city of Ambergris (also the setting for two of Vandermeer’s previous books, City of Saints & Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword). “Occupying” is the mot juste here. Not only are humans second-class citizens of Ambergris; they’re also susceptible to colonization by the gray caps, whose infectious spores kill or, in some cases, create human-fungal hybrids.
Escalating tensions and distrust between the the city’s factions make for an interzone that’s equal parts Casablanca and Carcosa. Vandermeer’s acclaimed dark fantasies owe as much to 19th-century decadents as they do to Michael Moorcock; with this book, he expands his territory to encompass classic noir, albeit filtered through his unique visionary sensibility. Finch trudges through Ambergris’s dank byways and criminal underground like Charles Baudelaire turned gumshoe, exposing conspiracy and treachery to the city’s fungal mist. The mashup of dreamscape and hard-boiled narrative makes for a sublime reading experience, The Big Sleep as fever dream. “It took a long time and a lot of patience to kill a gray cap,” Finch muses early on. Fortunately, it takes only one mostly sleepless night for a reader to make the subterranean journey to Ambergris and back—with absinthe and magic mushrooms optional. —Elizabeth Hand