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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 1, 2003
In "Veniss Underground" Jeff VanderMeer has produced a fascinating retelling of the underworld mythology that so riddles our collective subconscious. Although clearly inspired by Dante and the myth of Orpheus and Euridcye, there is also a more primal, basic undercurrent that infuses his work. Specifically, it is the divine, yet flawed spark that inhabits each human being; the desire to exercise god-like powers even though we must inevitably pass our own shortcomings into any creation.
Set in the future, one's instinct is to read "Veniss Underground" as science fiction, but to do so would mean missing something very fundamental at work. In reality, the novel is set in the future because it allows VanderMeer the freedom to use certain plot devices to propel his story forward. However, the real power of the novel comes from its exploration of our humanity.
That said, his future is a fascinating construct: set in a world where each city has become a power unto itself, surrounded by impassable wastelands of human creation. In this regard, VanderMeer again harkens back to mythology, as Athens and the like were beacons in a strange, dangerous world. Veniss is a city where genetically engineered meerkats talk and act as servants, and where walking, breathing Ganesha's provide security and courier services. Moreover, the city itself is a marvel, a world unto itself. However, Veniss is coming unglued, and it is all its fragmented leadership can do to keep it together. Moreover, Veniss survives because of the Underground, a sort of slum where untold thousands live out their lives in a kind of indentured servitude, hoping only to escape their all to literal hell. To say more, would give away too much, but the resonances VanderMeer has created with our shared histories should be somewhat clear from this overview.
Stylistically, "Veniss Underground" is arranged in a manner that seems almost pretentious at first, but actually proves to be quite effective. The novel is divided into three sections, each devoted to three of the main characters. The first is told in the first person by Nicholas, the instigator of the book's plot, but perhaps the least important character. His voice is that of our most base instincts as humans; he is selfish, utterly self absorbed, and short sighted. As such, the first person is the perfect choice, as we can all see ourselves reflected in his failures.
The second section is to told in the second person, which was difficult to adapt to, but nonetheless perfectly chosen. The reason for this is that Nicola, Nicholas' sister, is the purest aspect of a horribly twisted world. While she is ultimately no better than anyone else, she is placed on a pedestal by the use of the second person, and thus becomes objectified as what one aspires to be, or to posses. Nicola's voice is both the most enigmatic and the most effective because she is held above and apart from the fray, even as it swirls around her.
Finally, there is the third section which uses the conventional third person to narrate the events of Shadrach, Nicola's one time lover. His is a section of action, of deeds, and as such he is almost outside his own control (certainly his normal behavior) and is therefore the perfect vehicle for third person narration. As Shadrach descends into ever greater horror, his humanity is stripped away and he becomes literally an avatar for the progression of the story. It is only when he returns to the surface that he regains some semblance of self control.
What then of the true protagonist, the "bioneer" Quin, who created those remarkable meerkats and much darker things? He is barely glimpsed in person, but VanderMeer lets Quin's creatures tell his story for him. In much the same way that one could say a human's love is a reflection of God, even as his failings are a reflection of his humanity, so too are Quin's creatures' capriciousness and aloofness a reflection of their creator, even as their pathos is a reflection of something beyond Quin's control. Ultimately, Quin aspires to be godhead, but is brought low by the fundamental tendency to entropy that must remain forever outside his control. In this aspect he is less reminiscent of a mythological figure than he is of Kurtz of "Heart of Darkness"/"Apocalypse Now" fame.
Jeff VanderMeer has created a novel that plums the depth of depravity and horror in a way that neither Dante nor Conrad could ever have conceived. Unlike them however, he finds redemption and beauty at the very nadir of human endeavor. While the fate and purpose of Quin's creations is at best an enigma, the conclusion can only be seen as one of hope; that there is something fundamentally good in our species that will hold back, and eventually triumph over, our own worst creations. Brilliantly conceived and superbly executed, this is a novel that represents the best in writing today and is not to be missed.
Jake Mohlman
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2004
Although, or better to say because, the book is rather short (I needed about 4 hours to read it) it is intense and grotesque in many aspects.
First, the formal layout of the book is three chapters, written in the first, second and third person perspective. This produces in particular for the two first two chapters a personal almost intimidating experience. This is emphasized by the rather erratic language, which are more an assembly of half-sentences and second thoughts than well written prose, but it serves its purpose to enhance the claustrophobic, dooms-day feeling of the main characters.
The central part is the last chapter (I regard the first two chapter as a prologue to it) describing the voyage from the surface to the deepest level of the underground. It feels like a modern version of the Dante's Inferno. Vandermeer describes that which the progress in the underground humanity is more and more withdrawn. First it is only reflected in the behavior of people living there in despair. Then even their appearance alters (like the reappearance of the main character of the first chapter). Further down the underground is populated with creatures which only remaining humane character treat is suffering because they recognized the agony to live in that place and the awareness of their own doomed and flawed existence. At the end even that is gone and what remains is a chaotic dog-eats-dog world.
I rarely encountered a book which provoke so much emotion while reading and long after that. The book defies any classification into SF or Mystery and its use of first and second person narrative makes it so distinct to other who tried a similar approach.
Highly recommended
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2003
.... At the risk of overselling, I was floored by this book. I've been a fan of Jeff's work for over a decade (and, in the interest of full disclosure, a friend), so I've known he was a great writer for a long time. But this, his first novel, surpassed any expectation I could have had and made clear to me how good he really is--and he's just getting started!
"Veniss Underground" succeeds on so many levels. First, it has fully realized characters who fully engaged me. Not only did I see them as real, their respective plights became important to me.
Second, it has a simultaneously exotic, beautiful, terrible, and revolting far-future setting that is vividly described. One thing that I especially appreciated about Jeff's work on the settings is that he never feels the need to describe how such a crazy place came to be, what century we're in exactly, or what part of the world. The city of Veniss just *is*.
Third, the action and pacing are brisk enough to keep the book moving and create suspense, but just leisurely enough to allow lingering on the settings and the abundance of strange creatures. The third section of the book, in particular, is a hell of a ride. There are scenes in this third section that will stay with me forever. I can't provide much description of the third section of the book without spoiling the fun and surprises, so I won't try.
Fourth, the prose itself is near-perfect. As always with Jeff's work, each sentence is so obviously crafted with loving care. As a writer myself, I know the kind of painstaking, repeated rewriting that it takes to get prose that is both this poetic and this tight. The prose is lush without ever bogging down--as beautiful as the prose in, for instance, Pynchon's "Crying of Lot 49," but you never have to stop and re-read a sentence because it falters under its own weight.
In addition, Jeff takes some risks with the storytelling technique that totally succeed. Again, I don't want to spoil surprises, but I do want to say that this technique succeeds so well because it allowed me to see the characters in a way I don't think I otherwise would have been able to. I am in awe of what Jeff pulls off here.
I predict that this book will find a large audience because Jeff has managed to write a highly accessible book filled with beautiful prose; surreal, exotic, vivid settings; compelling characters; and a great story. Throughout the book, there are moments of laugh-out-loud humor side-by-side with moments of horror and revulsion side-by-side with moments of true beauty. "Veniss Underground" is one of those rare novels that possesses real popular appeal *and* true literary merit worthy of study, in the same package with elements of fantasy, a far-future setting, imagined technologies, and just plain surrealism. Don't miss this.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
What an interesting and grotesquely beautiful book, painted in vivid shades of despair! I picked Veniss Underground up on a recommendation, and am very glad that I did.
Overall, it is the story of a man seeking to save his lover, and perhaps also his soul, for he blames himself for her circumstances.
On Veniss, the cities are compacted into worlds of their own, each with their own political forces and policing policies; not only above ground, but beneath the world are levels extending far down into the deepest and most despairing depths.
The story picks up with Nicholas and Nicola, brother and sister formed in the same vat, birthed and raised together. Nicholas is an artist and Nicola a civil programmer, so very close when they were young, they were now miles apart both mentally and socially.
Shadrach is friend to Nicholas and former lover of Nicola, a large man who used to run supplies across the wastes in-between cities and now has a deep-rooted fear of the Underground.
When Nicholas goes missing, Shadrach doesn't give it much thought until he finds that not only is Nicola also missing, but pieces of her have turned up at a rich woman's estate.
Shadrach knows that Nicholas was last seen heading for the headquarters of his own mysterious boss, Quinn. Quinn is the ultimate "Living Artist", creating brand new lifeforms both useful and hideous. Nicholas had wanted to purchase a Meerkat from Quinn, in order to protect him from the police who robbed him.
Shadrach vows to find Nicola, and kidnaps the head of her former Meerkat to take into the Underground with him on his quest for Nicola, and his drive to hunt down and kill the enigmatic Quinn.
What makes Jeff Vandermeer's novel so very intriguing is his tri-view approach to telling his tale. The first book, Nicholas, is written in first-person perspective. The second book, Nicola, is written like a dream. That is, the story is told as if someone were telling you what has happened to you and how you felt about it; almost like hypnotism. Extremely unique and surreal angle, Vandermeer manages to pull it off. The third book is told in standard third perspective, as Shadrach descends below Veniss.
The city is fantastic, the underground disturbing and deadly, and the monstrous creations roaming the streets and alleys are truly frightening in their grotesqueries. Mr. Vandermeer's striking vision of the train deep in the depths of the Underworld and the outlandish deeper levels chilled my blood to a comfortably numb state, leaving my eyes widened in shock and my brain reeling with macabre wonder.
I will mention that the book is a bit slow to begin, but I urge you to have patience and stick with it, you will not be disappointed in Veniss. Enjoy!
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 19, 2005
Plot Summary: Nicholas is a struggling Living Artist looking for the master of his genre, Quin. He goes to his friend Shadrach who has worked for Quin and has been a lover to his sister Nicola who is a civil programmer who has lost touch with her brother and her former lover. Nick gets his wish with Shadrach's help. Shortly after a meerkat shows up at Nicola's door. Shadrach is sought out and immediately regrets helping Nicholas but in his despair is no help. Bad things occur to Nicola and Shadrach is revitalized in revenge and now desires to kill Quin. He realizes what Nicola has realized, the living art created by Quin is taking over the world of humans.

Opinion: Well, I must be the odd one out as I have only seen glowing reviews for this book yet I was unimpressed. The imagery was certainly as graphic as advertised and that was one thing about this that I liked. I never felt a thing for the characters in the story though. Nicholas, Nicola, Shadrach, and Quin were all not easy to sympathize with, in any way. The most interesting character was the meerkat of several names. He actually had a purpose within the framework of the story whereas the other characters pretty much fell into things as far as I could tell. Shadrach did not mean the results he caused to occur. Nicola did not mean to discover what she did. There were a few memorable scenes though, most notably for me was the scene where Nicholas and Nicola are 'reunited' in her apartment. The story had this air of dread, conspiracy, secrecy, and tension surrounding Quin, yet Shadrach and John waltzed right into the thick of things with amazingly little resistance. The setting was 'lovingly' portrayed in all its gruesomeness and I liked it. It could use a longer story set here.

Recommendation: From works I have read I would compare this to a cross between China Mieville and Richard Morgan. So if you like either of them, or both, you will probably like this. This did win the World Fantasy Award I believe and is pretty universally praised so I have to think I am in the minority with this not-so-good review. I give it 2.5 stars out of 5 because it seemed like it could have been better. I can't say that I would even try more Vandermeer but that is more because I am not the biggest fan of this type of novel than because I didn't like this particular story.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2003
I was greatly impressed by VanderMeer's themed collection of stories, City of Saints and Madmen, so expected something equally good with his first novel. Veniss Underground amply met my expectations. Although very different in style from City of Saints, it displays the same intelligence, invention and grotesque humour.
In the city of Veniss, genetic engineering is both a craft and an art. Along with humans there are genetically enhanced, hybrid animals. Not idealised or sentimentalised, they're capable of being just as nasty as homo sapiens. Much of the book's most memorable imagery concerns bodies - organic, inorganic or hybrid. To what extent the body and the personality are involved with each other - and, ultimately, what constitutes a person - are questions I found myself asking while reading this book. But it is also a story of the soul, of quests for lost loved ones.
While the world in the book is as rich, and as splendidly original, as that in City of Saints, the pace is faster, taking the reader on a hell-for-leather ride through a darkly carnivalesque far-future. VanderMeer writes with great flair throughout the book, crafting his story with prose that is lean and baroque at the same time. Veniss works equally as well when read as a fantastic or even a dreamlike, absurdist environment as it does when read as sci fi; it's a book that invites the reader to approach from more than one direction.
Veniss Underground has elsewhere been compared to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, and I think this is an apt way to describe the overall mood of the book. There's a wealth of detail, many strange creatures, and happenings humorous and horrible (often both at once); and there is also a sense of morality, a questioning of human ethics as they stand at present, particularly the way we treat the world around us.
Finally, I want to mention the Gollux - about whom I can say nothing without giving things away, except that it was the most entertaining supporting character - and the most truly alien - I've encountered for a long time.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2003
A mesmerizing tale of damnation and salvation set in a horrific far future where human bodies are infinitely malleable material for artistic manipulation. This novel is definitely not for the squeamish but it has a real integrity of vision that is both uncompromising and unfliching. But beyond the dazzling narrative of a half-man half-golem Orpheus's descent into hell in search for his beloved, there is a real emotional and moving tale of a lost soul in search of itself, its identity, and the solution to the riddle of its past. And it is this natural blending of an enormous, apocalyptic plot and an intimate portrayal of a vulnerable searcher that makes this novel so intruiging and profound. Highly recommended for those who seek works that use imagery and concepts from sci-fi and fantasy at the highest literary level. A great achievement by one of the most innovative and intelligent writers in the field.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
"Let me tell you about the city..."

I don't think that I've ever been this floored by a novel (A Storm of Swords at least had the dignity to come with a warning label in the form of the prior two volumes). VanderMeer is an author whose name seems to be pretty universally revered, when recognized, amongst SFF fans. For what feels like months, I've been looking for A City of Saints and Madmen. After having my search thwarted by every bookstore in Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, I finally found Veniss Underground in a college bookstore just before giving up hope. I had never heard of it, but by then I was willing to try anything with VanderMeer's name, or a close approximation of it, on the spine.

The book was, as can be inferred by the first sentence, stunning. It's set far in the future, in a time when earth's various cities have become high tech city states. For a time, Veniss enjoyed a golden age, but, for causes unspecified, the city's government came crashing down. In its absence, the various districts of the city have become independent in their own right, and the city's underground is spilling into daylight. Though he is only visible for a brief time, Quin is the catalyst of the entire book. It is his influence that sets every one of the characters on their path.

The glory of the book doesn't come from the plot. It's in the prose and characters that the magic is truly found. Experimental techniques such as second person and its kind are viewed with - not undeserved - hesitation by most readers. It takes a book like this to remind us that it isn't the techniques that are bad, just their continual misapplication. The writing here is filled with great phrases, yet remains clear throughout. Allusions to other literary works fill the story, Dante's Inferno and countless other classics and myths prominent among them.

The book is structured in three parts of increasing length, one from each of the character's perspectives. Different parts are each written in a totally different viewpoint style and vary considerably in atmosphere. The first of these is told by Nicholas. Despite being the reason that the rest of the characters are dragged down into the underworld, Nicholas's screen time is quite brief. His chapters are written from a selfish first person perspective, and, as a failed artist and "slang jockey" are littered with turns of phrase that vary from insightful ("The city is sharp, the city is a cliché performed with cardboard and painted sparkly colors to disguise the empty center - the hole"), to amusing (replacing IE with Eye E, for instance), to downright pretentious ("wait, listen: 'the end of the world is night;' that's mine, a single-cell haiku").

The second part of the book is told from Nicola's perspective. Prose here is written in a second person, present tense style. This not only sucks you in beautifully, after a few seconds of adjustment, but also provides some of the best writing:

"You. Were. Always. Two. As one: Nicola and Nicholas, merging into the collective memory together, so that in the beginning of a sentence spoken by your brother you knew the shadow of its end and mouthed the words before he said them."

The third part of the book is told from Shadrach, Nicola's former lover. His style is told in a more detached third person perspective. Here, the eye grabbing writing is pushed farther back, to allow the outside world to shine through more clearly. For a few instants this transition seems like a shame, but the prodigal strangeness of the underworld makes up for it with ease. Shadrach's section forms the largest portion of the book and from him we learn the most about Veniss, and about all of the characters. Prior misconceptions are set to rights, and there are two moments of brilliance that can best be described as the structural equivalent of a plot twist.

The underworld is strange in a way that few other fantasies have ever managed to be. It can, perhaps be compared to Mieville for sheer inventiveness, but the comparison comes more from the authors' titanic imaginations than any true similarity. As the quest continues, and Shadrach descends from level to level, the strangeness becomes ever more profound. There are scenes of horror here, and scenes of wonder, and all of them are perfectly envisioned and conveyed.

Also contained in the volume are three short stories and a novella, all set within the Veniss milieu. The short stories are all interesting, but none approach the level of the preceding novel. The greatest of them is the third, A Heart For Lucretia. Its interesting structure, and bizarre chain of events, is captivating, yet the entire thing felt like it was perpetually on the edge of greatness, unable to cross over within its limited length.

The novella, Balzac's War, is the best of the extra content. Like the shorts, it takes place far after the main story, and is centered on a war between humanity and the flesh dogs. The story begins with a brief scene, then jumps a large number of years. The reasons for that never become wholly apparent, but the story has strong characters and is highly unsettling nonetheless.

Veniss Underground is a story that draws you in and does not let you go, filled with memorable characters and troubling themes, evocative images and unforgettable action. It is not something that should be allowed to pass by. If you don't have it, you have done a grievous disservice to yourself. Remedy that at once.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 5, 2004
Perhaps the nicest thing about the book is it's brevity, for a book that broadly falls into the fantasy genre. At just about 200 pages, it's an elegant, economically written tale that sparkles with ideas, images and yes, even, erudition. There are various literary and mythical references, but it doesn't really hurt if you miss a lot of them. The story is strong enough on it's own.
The core story is that most hackneyed of genre devices - the quest. It traces one Shadrach's descent into the underworld to rescue his beloved, and then (literally) into the belly of the beast to avenge the wrongs that were visited upon her.
That's as far as the cliché goes, though. The setting, to begin with, is not some mediaevalist middle earth analog - it's a grim, intricately nightmarish far-future. The dark underworld is populated with ghastly creatures - all of which are the creations of Quin, an insane, brilliant genetic artist. Shadrach's beloved, Nicola, no longer returns his love. Quin himself is not unambiguously evil - he is cruel, sadistic and supremely twisted in a manner that Salvador Dali would have applauded, but it is hard to tell if his basic motivation - to replace the human race with something new - can be described as intrinsically evil.
The story is superbly constructed - it is divided into three sections, each longer than the previous one. First, we hear from Nicholas, second-rate struggling artist and Nicola's twin, in the first-person. Then we meet Nicola herself, in an unusual and unusually succesful second-person narrative. Finally, Shadrach, yes, the third person and in third-person.
It may all seem very clever-clever, but it in fact works quite seamlessly.
The book is quite nerve- wracking at times - certain scenes are not for the weak of stomach - and yet, capable of oddly whimsical invention at others. There are scenes of utter horror and moments of total brutality (Shadrach discovers that Nicola has been captured by Quin when he visits an elderly client of Quin who is wearing Nicola's transplanted eye and hand). And yet, the prose is so smooth and compelling, you have to read it all.
In fact, this was the first book in a long time that I stayed up all night to finish. It was also my biggest lit-kick since Eco's Baudolino.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2004
I first saw this slim tone siting on the shelf of my local bookshop. It seemed but a slight annoyance yet I decided to buy it. It turned out to be a very good annoyance indeed. Intricate, macarbe, puzzling, violent, pathetic, angry, revenge and redemption entwined in a strange sub earthic hive. Love and hatred entwined in an uneasy unresloved relationship. Lost loveones, loveones to be found again. The search for the creator bio-engineer to be sacrificed on the alter of redemption. Even a giant fish thrown in for good measure (Jonah and the whale anyone). Suicide from a speeding train. The list goes endlessly on and endlessly entertaining. A phantmosgorsmical regurgitation right out of Richard Burtons "Anatomy of Melancholy". I have given it 5 stars simply because there is so little fantasy out there which I consider original and a riping good yearn. This more than amply meets the bill.
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