Veniss Underground - Jeff VanderMeer

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

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Sorry, this is recycled from my blog, but I really liked this book and wanted to share my views on it in greater detail:

I've been hearing all sorts of good things about Jeff VanderMeer's Veniss Underground, and now that I've read it I can tell you they're all true.

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.
 

Incognito

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Sounds interesting - and I'll have to ask you if I can use this in the new reviews section that is coming soon from alternative-worlds.com to chronicles-network.com :)
 

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

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I was so impressed with this book, I wandered over to Jeff VanderMeer's message board on his site and posted a small adulatory message. He was kind enough to respond:

Thanks! I'm glad you liked it. I had fun with that third part because I wanted to make it a kind of can't-put-it-down joy ride. Because City of Saints generally has a slower pace, some people don't realize I can write that kind of stuff.

JeffV
I think he proved his point! That third part is areal edge-of-your-seat ride, although I wouldn't really associate it with the word 'joy'....
 

Brian G Turner

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Heh, glad to see an author responding to their readers! All too often novelists seem to detest their fans, just love their wallets.
 

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

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Well, it depends. I've found that there are many authors who respond quite warmly, usually the ones who are more cued in to the whole 'net thing. And probably the younger writers...well, the newer ones anyway. I've previously had responses from other writers, but none of them are what you'd call big-name writers (the sort for whom their name is bigger than the book's title on the jacket, I mean) yet.

Brian, I trust you'll continue to be approachable when you are a wealthy fantasy icon churning out the bestsellers going on signing tours and so forth.
 

GOLLUM

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Well that's a little difficult because all of his books (that I've read) are surreal in one way or another.

I would recommend City of Saints and Madmen. I enjoyed that quite a bit. It is really a series of short stories, vignettes centered around Vandermeer's city of Ambergris. It's also the start of a loose 'trilogy' of Ambergis novels that follows with Shriek: An Afterword and Finch. Shriek: An Afterword follows on the story of a couple of the key characters from Saints and Madmen whilst Finch is a fairly enjoyable procedural noir. I think I rated this one 7 out of 10 whilst Saints and Madmen I scored somewhere around 8 or 8.5. You don't really need to read the other 2 novels to enjoy Saints and Madmen.

I pulled this from wiki to provide you with a sense of Ambergis:

The stories of City of Saints and Madmen are set in Ambergris, an urban sprawl named for "the most secret and valued part of the whale" and populated by humans after its original inhabitants—a race of mushroom-like humanoids known as "gray caps"—were violently driven underground. These creatures, though removed from the eccentricities of daily life in Ambergris, continue to cast a shadow over the city with their unexplained nocturnal activities

And....

Ambergris, named for "the most secret and valued part of the whale," is a fantastical urban milieu, explicitly modern and apparently pre-industrial (despite the presence of guns, bombs, and motor vehicles). Ambergris is characterized by grocery stores, post offices, cafés, and vendors (The "Borges Bookstore" bears note). The city was built over the land (and quiet protests) of the fungally-adept "graycaps," humanoids of uncertain disposition. The inhabitants of Ambergris enjoy a fascination with squid, and celebrate an anarchic annual Festival of the Freshwater Squid.

Personally I think the best thing Vandermeer has written to date is Veniss Underground. I think it's a masterpiece and rated it 10/10.

I hope this helps.
 

Fried Egg

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I've only read "Shriek: An Afterword" and "Finch" and I'm not really sure whether they were a good place to start or not. I felt a bit like I had jumped into the deep-end but maybe most of his writing is like that?

I would say that if you fancy a crime/mystery fantasy hybrid you might try "Finch". Both his books were on the dark side of fantasy with elements of weird/horror.

Sorry I can't be more help...


Damn, reading this has just made me order two of his books.
 

Stephen Palmer

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I would definitely recommend Veniss Underground first, or at any juncture. Terrific book. Wasn't so keen on TSOSAM, but that is a very different book...
 

GOLLUM

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I would definitely recommend Veniss Underground first, or at any juncture. Terrific book. Wasn't so keen on TSOSAM, but that is a very different book...
Like chalk and cheese I would say...:)

I only hesitated recommending Veniiss as a first up read as it's fairly full-on and not to everyone's taste. Brian did post he didn't want to be plunged right away into the surreal and I couldn't think of a Vandemeer book that would do this more than Veniss. It's a masterpiece no doubt about it.

Also only a slight tangent Jeff and Ann Vandermeer have compiled some pretty great anthologies. I would recommend their Steampunk series along with New Weird and the superb The Weird anthology which is the best (and most comprehensive) collection of weird short stories I've ever come across weighing in at a hefty 110 stories. Anyone interested in weird fiction or gaining a deeper understanding of the roots and influences on our current SFF/Horror fiction not to mention examples of GREAT writing should have this on their shelf. A key collection.
 
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