Whenever I am going to meet an author I try to read some of their work beforehand. At ALA this year I attended a dinner with Jeff VanderMeer, and on the plane to DC I started reading his latest fantasy novel Shriek: An Afterword. I only made it through the first 100 pages of so before meeting him, but I could tell there was quite a bit of talent in the man.
Shriek: An Afterword is of that fantasy genre that I don’t often read: alternative histories that may or may not be earth. It is also a biography of sorts of the Shriek siblings, Duncan written by his older sisterS Janice. Likewise it is a “biography” of their strange city, Ambergris. In Shriek, Janice is looking back on her life and writing an afterword for one of her historian/writer brother’s books. The Shriek’s lives were marked by the sudden death of their father after receiving the announcement that he had won a prestigious literary award, when they were children. Is this event the one that started Duncan down the path of an obsessive historian with radical theories perhaps too outlandish for others to fathom? And is this why Janice longs for recognition even while self-destructively indulging in every pleasure imaginable? The Shrieks eventually become fixtures in Ambergris’ culture, both reaching populist heights and tragic lows.
The river-city of Ambergris itself is perhaps the most potent character in the novel. Think of a grand, decaying New Orleans, complete with an underground city of quasi mushroom dwellers known as Gray Caps and you might get a sense of what Ambergris holds. Duncan’s obsession focuses on the Gray Caps and his first work, Cinsorium: Dispelling the Myths of the Gray Caps becomes a best-seller. During his research, Duncan uncovered hints of dark secrets connecting the Gray Caps to an horrific event that nearly destroyed the city years back. He also picked up a bizarre fungal condition that remained with him for the rest of his life. Janice unspools the pair’s story with tantalizing hints of their fate, augmented by notes from her brother, sometimes reinforcing, sometimes contradicting what she writes. It is a fascinating and compelling addition to the city’s lore.
VanderMeer has created a masterfully detailed, complex, fantastical novel, so utterly and darkly creative. The voices of Janice and Duncan are unique and true, revealing their all-too human flaws even while endearing them to the reader. Shriek: an afterword calls to mind Mary Gentle’s glorious White Crow novels, Rats & Gargoyles and Architecture of Desire in its gloriously giddy sense of the historical and the fantastic. This was one absorbing and entertaining read.