Jeff VanderMeer was born on July 7, 1968. In honor of his birthday, I'm resurrecting a review I did for Liz Holliday's fine UK SF magazine 3SF, back in 2003. The review is relatively short, because that was the format I was working to.
Jeff VanderMeer is one of the most interesting writers in the SF/Fantasy field. He is certainly not unknown, and indeed he has won the World Fantasy Award, but he seems underappreciated relative to his ability. In part this is because his fiction is generally quite experimental. In part it is because most of his work has appeared from small presses. In part it is because he has published no novels (despite a couple of novellas published as short books). Now at least that third issue, if not the first two, is addressed with Veniss Underground.
[Note -- I wrote all that back in 2003! Jeff has certainly received a lot more (very much deserved) notice and appreciation since then, particularly for the Southern Reach trilogy (and the movied made of the first book in that series, Annihilation), and for Borne.]
The novel is neatly structured as three increasingly long sections told from different viewpoints. The opening first-person section is told by Nicholas, a failed Living Artist. He reveals how he became involved with the sinister Quin, a much more successful Living Artist. The second section, in second person, tells of Nicholas's sister Nicola, whose search for the disappeared Nicholas results in a fatal gift of a genetically modified meerkat from Quin. Finally, the third section (in third person, naturally), is about Nicola's ex-lover Shadrach, who journeys to the underworld to try to save the dead Nicola.
The action is interesting and moving. But what makes the novel special is VanderMeer's lush prose, and in particular the descriptions of the far-future enclave of Veniss. I was reminded at times of Samuel R. Delany, at times of Richard Calder, at times of China Miéville. But mostly this lurid and fascinating mix of exotic fantasy, dark horror, and imaginative far-future science fiction is pure Jeff VanderMeer, and much to be recommended.