Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
Shriek: An Afterword is Jeff VanderMeer's second novel set in his Ambergris cosmology. There's a lot of elements with regards to the book that I want to talk about so please bear with me.
The first is that this is a sequel yet it's not. I won't talk about City of Saints and Madmen here but suffice to say, Shriek: An Afterword builds on the material present there. However, it's not necessary to have read the previous book to appreciate this novel. For the uninitiated, it's merely enough to know that the historical artifacts mentioned in the book exists somewhere. Fans of VanderMeer, on the other hand, will be dazzled by the fact that the author actually wrote a text like "The Hoegbottom Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," the equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft actually penning The Necronomicon instead of merely alluding to it in his stories. In a way, that's the conceit of this sequel. Whereas City of Saints and Madmen is this disparate collection of writings on Ambergris, Shriek: An Afterword goes the opposite direction as it's more of a conventional narrative--at least "conventional" by VanderMeer's standards--which happens to allude to the text present in the first book. It's difficult to re-invent second world fantasy, especially post-Tolkien, but in a certain way, VanderMeer accomplishes just that, not through elaborate world-building (although VanderMeer also succeeds there), but through the presentation of the material and form. Side by side, the two Ambergris novels are consistent and interact with each other, but only as a tangent rather than a direct successor.
The second topic I want to tackle is the prose itself. If City of Saints and Madmen was this big experiment in form, Shriek: An Afterword is no less skillful when it comes to technique. While it's immediately evident that City of Saints and Madmen is intricate and complex, this novel is more subtle. It's readable for example as VanderMeer's prose is precise, compelling (due to having a good handle on the tone of his characters), and follows a traditional plot. As a reader, we could end our assessment there and we'd come out with a fairly enjoyable book. But if we apply a critical lens, we'd discover that there's layers upon layers concealed in the text.
Early on, it's evident that the narrative is paradoxical. Our narrator is Janice Shriek and she proclaims that this book is a history of her brother, Duncan Shriek. Yet the more we read, it becomes clear that this is more of her story than Duncan's. And then there's Duncan's interjections--a living commentary on his own biography. Between the two, we catch the prejudices and personalities of the two protagonists, which are implied rather than spoon-fed. This then spirals into the metafictional aspects of the book. While the banter between Janice and Duncan is enjoyable, it's also saying something about the nature of fiction and history, especially when the former airs her perception and the latter tells his side of what "actually" occurred. If we look at it from another perspective, Shriek: An Afteword could also be a commentary on the life of an artist as the author weaves a fictional industry around his characters, albeit one that's fantastical and embellished. Finally, I keep coming back to City of Saints and Madmen. Reading Shriek: An Afteword is a different experience depending on whether you read the previous novel or not. I'm not saying that either experience is more superior, but it engages--and intrudes upon--the reader in varied ways.
The third topic I want to tackle is the writing itself. While I can praise the book's structure and concept, VanderMeer doesn't neglect what makes a story effective. The author has a strong handle on the characters and by the time you're done with the narrative, they're like the best friends you never had: complex, tragic, but definitely alive. There are various plots which VanderMeer seeds early on, such as the inevitable conflict with Mary Sabon (it's in the second page!), which makes the pay-off at the end well worth it. And then there's the inclusion of various literary elements such as magic-realism, stream of consciousness, or simply judicious usage of words that's almost poetic as can be seen in the line "Afterwords. Afterwards. Afterwar." And since this is secondary-world fantasy we're talking about, you won't even notice the way VanderMeer introduces exposition.
Shriek: An Afterword is this deceptively complex novel that's not only engaging but alive with character. In many ways, VanderMeer reminds me of some of the world's best writers and in this case, the parallel is closer to Vladmir Nabokov, especially the way the text is layered but accessible. Of course all the praise for technical skill is meaningless if the book isn't enjoyable in the first place but Shriek: An Afterword is quite satisfying.