Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Review: "Shriek: An Afterword"

If you've read Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen, you'll understand what I mean when I say that its quasi-sequel, Shriek: An Afterword (Tor, 2006) is a reading experience unlike most others. VanderMeer's fantastical universe with its mysterious and murky city of Ambergris comes to life in this book - fetid, dark, mysterious life.

Written in the form of an afterword to a work by controversial historian Duncan Shriek by his sister Janice, but with Duncan's own bracketed additions to the text included, Shriek effectively chronicles several decades of life in Ambergris from the perspective of a woman made bitter by the (fairly severe) obstacle course that life has thrown in her way ... and from the perspective of her brother, whose own track was hardly free of hindrances.

Janice's text is on its surface a defense of her brother and his historical theories about Ambergris (its origins and its fate), but, given her penchant for a good tangent, it's also a history of the city itself, a strong polemic against her brother's fellow historian, ex-lover and greatest critic Mary Sabon. And for us, her readers, it's a chance to discover more - a few hints and suggestions at a time - about just what's going on in Ambergris that makes it such a strange, vibrant, and utterly bizarre place. This, you understand, is a city where commercial publishing houses go to war, where historians find their homes are stopping points for tourists, where there are statues of opera stars and festivals for squid.

VanderMeer's grasp of the fantastical is astounding; one of the most fascinating things about this work is the way that he's built in such a strong sense of suspense, of growing darkness, of freakish creatures waiting for their moment to strike. Normally I can read a couple books at once, alternating between them as I liked; when I read this, I could pick up nothing else until it was done. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one if you like to travel off into dank, dark corners of a fictional world.

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