on May 24, 2010
Not to put too fine of a point on this, but "Shriek" is a modern masterwork. Immediate comparisons to Gene Wolfe, China Mieville, and Umberto Eco are unavoidable, and like those authors VanDermeer has done something that I feel is a necessary reinvigoration of literature, irrespective of genre: challenge the reader. Don't expect to be brought up to speed about the world that the characters live in, as 'current events' will be chronicled faster than you can process them, blending with childhood reminiscence. It is highly rewarding, though. This book lives and breathes- or rather, hacks and wheezes with lungs infiltrated by magickal fungi. The layered epistolary conceit- that of an artist's afterword to her brother's fictional history book, with the brother's annotations and their mutual editor's actual fictional afterword, is surprisingly fluid. One more item I must point out- I am very jaded as a reader, and unlikely to be shocked. In the midst of the protagonist's tale of life in war-torn Ambergris, there is a death scene so abrupt and unexpected that it literally jolted me.
While 'Shriek: An Afterward' is fully capable of standing on it's own, it is technically a sequel to VanderMeer's fantastic 'City Of Saints And Madmen'. While 'City' was somewhat a documentary of the city of Ambergris (including a section dedicated to a book called 'The Hoegbottom Guide To Ambergris' by Duncan Shriek), 'Shriek' is a biography of historian and writer Duncan Shriek as told by his sister Janice Shriek.
I first read this book as soon as it was first published, but for some reason failed to review it. Intending to finally review it, I picked it up and read it again. You know that a book is exceptional when you enjoy it just as much the second time around. I still recommend reading 'City Of Saints And Madmen' first, then dive full on into 'Shriek'.
'Shriek: An Afterward' is a manuscript by Janice Shriek that documents the life and career of historian Duncan Shriek, her brother. Rather than a tale OF the city of Ambergris, Janice tells us what it's like to live in the city; to walk it's streets and be a part of the very pulse of it's inhabitants.
Duncan and Janice's father, also a historian, died when they were quite young, affecting both children very deeply. Duncan grows up to become a historian and writer, just like his father, and Janice, like her mother, becomes interested in the arts. Their careers wax and wan repeatedly through this account of their lifetimes. Duncan's fixation with underground Ambergris and the mystical fungal beings called Gray Caps that inhabit those dark spaces. Even when confronted with the Gray Caps during the annual, and extremely violent, Festival Of The Freshwater Squid, inhabitants of Ambergris turn a blind eye to the strange creatures and wallow in denial of them. Duncan refuses to accept their denial, and spends a lifetime attempting to open the eyes of Ambergris.
War breaks out in Ambergris, instigated by two powerful publishing companies: Hoegbottom & Sons in Ambergris and Frankwrithe & Lewden in nearby Morrow. At the climax of the war comes not only the Kalif from the northern isles with his soldiers to interfere, but also the Festival to heighten the violence that already shakes the very foundation of the city.
Janice makes many references to an ancient tome written by a man named Samuel Tonsure, who not only wrote an account of the underground city but disappeared into it, never to return. (Tonsure's work is also used in 'City Of Saints And Madmen') Duncan explores the underground extensively, but does not come away untouched. He finds a cybernetic machine in the depth of the underground that sends him teetering on the edge of sanity, and develops a "fungal disease" whose purpose seems to be turning him into a fungus or mushroom. Janice's account includes Duncan showing up at her apartment, where she spends an evening scraping mushrooms from her brother's skin.
This lifetime account of the Shriek's, written by Janice and liberally sprinkled with notes later added by Duncan himself, is a fascinating journey into a mysterious city that, should there be a way to travel there, I would certainly go. The novel is thick with detailed information of the lives of the Shriek's and the history of Ambergris. It's hard to believe that VanderMeer could fully flesh out not just the Shriek's but all their acquaintances, friends, foes, and lovers so well using the format of a manuscript - but it works, and is exceptionally well-written. While not fast-paced, 'Shriek' is nonetheless a book I couldn't put down; I simply became too involved with the players that I wanted to continue reading through the night, to not let go of their hopes and dreams, achievements and failures. In other words, I wanted to stay with them. The tale is very absorbing, and creepy at times. The descriptions of Duncan's fungal "disease" and of the infestation of fungi and spores throughout Ambergris often had me running to the sink to scrub my hands.
I can't get enough of Jeff VanderMeer's writing; he's one of the most exceptional writers of our time and shouldn't be overlooked. Remember to pick up 'City Of Saints And Madmen' and 'Veniss Underground' by VanderMeer (two of my favorite books). I'm looking forward to reading VanderMeer's newest novel, Finch. Run, don't walk, to pick up this book. Ten Stars. Enjoy!
on April 22, 2016
Quite different from the first book in the series. The biographical nature of the story telling tells a consistent-ish narrative rather than the scattered short stories of the first book. In the first book Ambergris was a immutable mysterious monster, any changes that affected the whole of the city were part of the cities history and so less real. The book spans a long time period and has persistent characters from whose perspective we experience the city is changeable and vulnerable.
The short stories nature of the first book made me sympathize with the setting. This second book made me fear for the setting. The author knew where I'd hide my emotional investment and set a trap for it or maybe things just worked out that way.
Get ready to feel some arrogance, anger, fear, loss and joyful nostalgia (BDD).
on March 11, 2010
In both setting and character, Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris is an enigmatic destination. It's just fantastical enough for the reader to suspend their belief in the existence of the murky and unnerving gray caps, while just as believable as an obscure and unstable, equatorial locale reminiscent of perhaps a newly colonized (relatively) New Guinea. Either way, Ambergris is an immersive epicenter of weirdness that's completely engrossing as depicted in VanderMeer's Shriek: An Afterword.
The story revolves around the lives of a pair of siblings, Duncan and Janice Shriek, and their absorption into Ambergris, particularly its academic fabric, as told by means of memoir and revision. The stories are of their successes and failures in a time of warring academics set within a warring city known for its tendency to inexplicably implode. On the surface, it is a city possessing a magical element that lends an unnerving flavor to its mystique. When the annual and oft-terrifying Festival of the Freshwater Squid is in repose, the battle for both literal and literary dominance of the city is viciously fought through scholars and their powerful publishing houses. Beneath the surface, the ever elusive, cryptic and unfathomable gray caps are waiting.
VanderMeer superbly creates a multidimensional depth for all his characters while clearly delineating the protagonists from the antagonists. The only drawback was his over indulgence with Duncan's relationship with the character Mary Sabon; more time could have been spent on the relatively peripheral but intriguing characters of Sybel and Sirin. Otherwise, his pacing between the emotive narrative and the omniscient description (especially of all things fungal) is flawless. His movements between the mysterious, mundane and the insanely horrific are precisely paced as well. Shriek: An Afterward is a thrilling and frightening work of modern weirdness and quasi-steampunkery.
on November 26, 2012
Shriek is definitely different from most of the stuff out there in terms of fantasy fiction. Even the very concept behind the novel is kind of out there: an afterword to a fictional work written by one character with various notes and comments injected by another character at some later date. Such a set up could have made for a very confusing read, but Mr. VanderMeer is a talented author who handles Janice and Duncan's voices so skillfully that they seem flow with each other, while still remaining distinct. I will admit that it took me a while to get into the story, Janice is not always the most likable narrator, but once I did I truly got a feel for the strange, fantastical, flamboyant, tragic, and often humorous city of Ambergris. It is the true protagonist of this novel, and one of the greatest places of imagination to come out of modern fantasy.
on February 21, 2011
Amazing. Hallucinatory, surreal, frightening, yet also packed with complex characterization and genuine emotion. Readers who enjoyed visiting the fungus-shrouded city of Ambergris in _City of Saints and Madmen_ will be spellbound by this engaging story of love and loss and the impermanence of all human endeavor.
Initially conceived as an afterword to the "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris" by Duncan Shriek (which is reprinted in _City of Saints and Madmen_) the story becomes a personal memoir told in a rambling, almost stream-of-consciousness manner by Janice Shriek, Duncan's older sister. With casual disregard for chronological order, she tells of their childhood, Duncan's education and the beginning of his career as a historian as well as her own tumultuous life as an art-gallery owner and notorious libertine - as well as her bouts of depression, the spectacle of her brother being gradually changed (in strange ways) by his obsession with the mysterious "gray caps" and his unreasoning love for rival historian Mary Sabond. She recounts the gruesome war between two merchant clans vying for control of the city, and its horrifying climax on the night of the annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid. The story is interrupted and commented upon throughout by Duncan himself in parenthetical asides (he having apparently found the manuscript sometime after Janice finished writing it) so the siblings end up telling the story together.
The "gray caps" (a race of mushroom-people who originally inhabited Ambergris but were driven underground by the first human settlers) are a sinister presence in the background, discussed more than actually seen. They seem to be up to no good, planning something perhaps ... having read _Finch_ first, I already know what it is, but I don't think this foreknowledge really diminished my enjoyment of _Shriek_. Each book adds something to the Ambergris mythos, and they all refer to each other, so I don't think they must necessarily be read in any specific order.
Even as disjointed as it is, this book is more coherent than _City of Saints and Madmen_ but less so than _Finch_. It has some action and a bit of suspense but it is definitely the least viscerally exciting of the three. But so much more emotional! I don't usually like books that dwell overmuch on "feelings" but this one had enough weirdness in it to keep me fascinated. I also jumped out of my seat at the mention of an event I recall from the strange case of X in _City of Saints and Madmen_ and which, based on evidence in that book AND this one, must be a recursive time-paradox. Just another of VanderMeer's devious tricks??
Anyway, GREAT book; I highly recommend it for fans of dark fantasy and the "New Weird." I think HP Lovecraft would have been very, very impressed.
I picked this up and Finch at the same time. I liked the ideas of this novel and wished they were explored more but the execution of the storytelling was very hard for me to read. I found myself forcing me to read the book. Normally I would continue reading Finch but I'm going to take a break and read something else to get my wind back.
This revolves around 3 main characters. One of which is the narrator (Janice), another her brother (Duncan) that has comments interwoven into the narration (which I liked), and Ducan's love Mary. I only found Ducan interesting, the narrator annoying (if this is what was meant, bravo but not fun reading).. Mary's character depth is thin as are most of the supporting characters.
Interwoven with the personal exploration is mentioning of the history of the city, the wars and the gray caps. They gray caps having the most potential but this is not gone into depth.
This does read as a personal account of someone caught up within events larger than themselves and hence many things cannot be explained or are inadequately explained based on her limited knowledge. I guess in the end I found this lacking.
on November 9, 2006
Those who read more than just a few books a year will know well the mixture of trepidation and excitement that comes with receiving a new book by a favored author. Will it be up to snuff? Will it live up to the joys of previous books? As we all know, there are good books, bad books and then there are those rara avis that transport the reader so fully into a world that the interface between printed word and imagination is seamless. Shriek: An Afterword is such an artistic triumph. Not only stylistically brilliant, not only a cracking good yarn, but also a terrific meditation on themes of love, of family, of fame, of the human condition as a whole.
Shriek: An Afterword relates the histories of Janice and Duncan Shriek of Ambergris (VanderMeer's imaginary city which is so well drawn that it's 'history' seems as `real' as many contemporary cities around the world - Think of The Arabian Night's 'Bagdad'). These characters have come into play in small ways in VanderMeer's previous tales "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and "An Early History of Ambergris" but here they come into full blossom. The story is told via flashback, as Janice relates the specifics of her rise and fall in the artistic world of Ambergris and Duncan's exploration of the mysteries of the inscrutable `Grey Caps', Ambergris' original inhabitants, Masters of Fruiting Bodies and other applied fungal technology. The Grey Caps were thought slaughtered during their historic conquest, but there have been disturbing hints of their continued malign existence echoing down the ages.
In the best tradition of James' Turn of the Screw, Janice Shriek is a most unreliable narrator. Described in VanderMeer's Award Winning Novella, "The Transformation of Martin Lake" (available in "The City of Saints and Madmen") as a " a severe, hunched woman with calculating, cold blue eyes...a slick blather of nonsense that Lake despised and admired all at once...A failed painter and a budding art historian" , in Shriek: An Afterword, we quickly find that traumatized at an early age by the sudden death of her father (at the peak moment of happiness in his life), she has become a drug addicted, failed suicide who has supposedly fully recovered from her descent into madness (*Whew!*). Janice is consumed by her accent to social prominence and subsequent fall from grace. She views, with horrified fascination, her former celebrity status; despising, yet desiring it again at the same time. Her main redeeming feature is her deep love for her brother, with all his warts, and her accompanying morbid curiosity in Duncan's eventual transformation.
Stylistically speaking, this would be a tough act to pull off, but VanderMeer has upped the ante considerably by having the `first' person to read Janice's account be her brother, who adds his own annotations to the text with which we are presented. Now the editorializing of an author in their own work is hardly original, going back at least to Thackeray's "Vanity Fair", and the device of adding additional commentary by another character over lapping the first was also used by George MacDonald Fraser, but solely for comic effect in "Flashman's Lady" (featuring a waspish commentary by a religious spinster to selections of the air headed and promiscuous Elspeth Flashman's diary), and although the comic angle is aptly used (one's toenails curling in sympathy with Duncan's anguished comment of "Delete, Delete, Delete' after reading Janice's graphic retelling of one of his steamy sexual encounters), VanderMeer's also uses this device to underline family sympathy, and point out lacking in Janice's text. For in Duncan's estimation Janice is a poor writer in many ways.
VanderMeer has shown in the production values of The City of Saints and Madmen (using different fonts, writing styles and illustrations to convey an entire world) that he is an artist of the first rank, and Shriek: An Afterword confirms this admirably.
One can point to this book and say; It's Fantasy, while somebody else says no no it's science fiction, while yet another will say No its written in the same surrealistic mode of Rushdie's `Satanic Verses', all points being valid at the same time. Wisely, this book is being published sans any genre identification, for in the final analysis, it's not just literature: it's a work of art.
on January 24, 2016
A somewhat overextended rehash of an H P Lovecraft plot (to name it would be a spoiler) seen through the prism of an afterword by an unreliable narrator (annotated in parenthesis by her brother) and epilogued by a snooty aesthete named Sirin (there's a sign or a symbol there, oh yes). The prose does not reach the heights implied by this piece of name-dropping (far from it), and the combination of unreliable narrators and fantasy setting makes for a rather clumsy telling of a rather unremarkable tale (albeit some of the details are quite fun). The use of parenthesis to differentiate one narrator from the other is a thoroughly cack-handed device (and results in a somewhat irritating read).
Jeff VanderMeer's previous works are experiments with form that organize around a setting and a few central characters or concepts. Basically, Veniss Underground and City of Saints & Madmen are both short-story anthologies in which all the stories are set in a particular imagined city (in Veniss Underground, Veniss; in City of Saints & Madmen, Ambergris). Veniss Underground did, obliquely, tell the story of the fall of the city, but mostly, both books were about setting and mood, and VanderMeer created mood not only with his writing style but by experimenting with font and format.
City of Saints & Madmen introduced its audience to the lush, mysterious city of Ambergris with stories disguised as travel guides, the scrawlings of institutionalized madmen, and even bibliographies; with Punch-like cartoons featuring minor characters; and even with short stories attributed to characters from other stories in the book. Compared to that, Shriek, VanderMeer's second book set in Ambergris, is almost normal. It's the novel-length autobiographical afterword Janice Shriek, an art gallery owner we first met in Saints & Madmen, writes for a book authored by her mysteriously vanished historian brother Duncan - with annotations from Duncan, who reappears after Janice disappears when she completes the afterword. For most of Shriek's length, it reads basically as Janice's biography with italicized comments from Duncan. Compared to Saints & Madmen, this makes it practically ordinary.
But nothing about the city of Ambergris is ever completely ordinary, even in what is to a great extent merely the fictional autobiography of an important figure in the arts. VanderMeer's creepy details include a healthy dose of body horror - the story is replete with fungal invasions of people and even societies - along with the alien designs of the bizarre Gray Caps who live under the city, and even the prosaic (but increasingly common) horrors of urban war. Still, VanderMeer's real distinction as a writer is not so much in the fantastic elements of the story as in the tone he can give to his works, a tone weakest here and strongest in Veniss Underground, of impending doom. VanderMeer gives a Masque of the Red Death flavor to everything he does, and that adds poignancy to his relatively simple story of the rise and fall of the Shriek siblings.