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Literature / Ambergris

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Figure 1: Janice Shriek's typewriter. As the reader can see from this photo, the typewriter keys had been infiltrated by mushrooms. Many of the keys were brittle and fell off within weeks of taking the machine out of the room at the Spore of the Gray Cap. The typewriter disintegrated entirely within five months.

Ambergris is a substance produced in the digestive tracts of sperm whales, then regurgitated in a solid, waxy form. It possesses a dull gray color, sometimes black. It is flammable, and while first carrying an odor reminiscent of feces acquires a more pleasant scent as it ages, a sweet and earthy fragrance that has been compared to alcohol.

Ambergris is also the name of a city that serves as the setting for a series of books penned by Jeff VanderMeer which are known, for lack of a better title, as The Ambergris Cycle. The city itself possesses a dull gray color, although this is offset by the inordinate amounts of fungus which makes its home within the cracks and along the walls of the city's architecture. Mushrooms, lichens, molds and other fungi have taken over the city. Quite literally, in fact, for in addition to the city's human dwellers the underground of Ambergris houses the curious beings known only as the Gray Caps. They are Shrouded in Myth. Named for their distinctive headwear. Short of stature, origin a mystery. Rumored to control the fungus. To feed on it. To live in it. To be themselves mushroom creatures. They lurk in places too dark and dank for humans to venture, and they grow ever more bold in their contact with the world above.


The books which take place in Ambergris, by order of publication, are —

  • City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris (2001)
    • Preceded by The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek (1999), which is collected within City.
  • Shriek: An Afterword (2006)
  • Finch (2009)

Tropes present in the books of Ambergris

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek

  • Footnote Fever: According to his publisher, Duncan wrote almost half the book in footnote format-they only stayed there because they were insightful and often hilarious.
  • Noodle Incident: Often within the footnotes.

City of Saints and Madmen

  • Comedic Sociopathy: One particular anecdote about how the Ambergrisians revolted against the Kalif, detailing how a cafe owner cheerfully poisoned several enemy soldiers, and then urged his cousin to visit because the weather was so nice there.
  • Eldritch Location: Something is implied to be very wrong with Ambergris, most of it caused by the Gray Caps.
  • Fantastic Racism: The Nimblytod and the Dogghe tribes were indigenous to the Ambergris area before it was settled by Manzikert's armies.
    • Also against the Gray Caps by Mazinkert and his people, culminating in a genocide. This turned out to be a bad idea.
  • A Fête Worse Than Death: The Festival of the Freshwater Squid.
  • Mysterious Past: Tonsure. In Finch it’s revealed he was Shriek trying to change the past by wiping out the Greycaps at the City’s founding but setting up a Stable Time Loop instead.
  • Starfish Aliens: The giant freshwater squid probably aren't from outer space, but otherwise they fit perfectly in the description. They're strongly implied to be sentient, communicate with bioluminiscence and when people gather together to hunt them once a year, they in turn gather together to hunt people.

Shriek: An Afterword

  • Body Horror: Duncan's slow transformation and degradation.
  • The Cassandra: Duncan destroys his career and later his relationship by insisting that the city is secretly controlled by mysterious midgets that dwell underground and like mushrooms. Though it's implied that many of his opponents know perfectly well that he is right, but try to convince themselves otherwise to protect their peace of mind.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Duncan associates closely with them later in his career, since they're the only ones who listen to his theories with a straight face. As far as the general population is concerned, he's the craziest one of them all, since he claims to back up his wild theories with personal experience.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Janice holds that she is offering a balanced yet opinionated account of her brother's life. Duncan takes issue with the first claim. She straight out admits this herself towards the end; including that it was her who informed Duncan's superiors he was in a relationship with a student destroying his career.


  • Badass Army: The remaining Rebel forces have been holed up in different worlds in different eras. And in their respective safe places, they had been gathering resources and building up their troop strength with what's available locally for a very long time. So when they return to Ambergris, it's the end of the Gray Cap rule.
  • Bio Punk: Fungus guns, fungus bombs, the memory bulbs... fungus cyborgs!
  • Body Horror: Wyte, more drawn-out and excrutiating than even Duncan's was.
  • The Chessmaster: Bliss has been manipulating events in Ambergris at least as far back as the Wars of the Houses. He claims on behalf of the Kalif, but is strongly implied to represent a Bigger Bad.
  • Cool Gun: Finch's fungus gun is useless against Gray Caps, so he gets himself a blackmarket weapon. It's a twin-barrelled automatic pistol that fires explosive bullets, making it almost the minimum level of firepower when going up against the Gray Caps.
  • Cool Tank: Mentioned in passing but towards the late stages of the war, tanks have been developed with an extra turret mounted on the underbelly. The under-cannon's purpose is to blast Gray Caps that were beginning to emerge from the soil. By the time they're in service it's too little, too late.
  • Fungus Humongous: By this point, the Gray Caps' mushrooms have grown to the size of buildings.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: As opposed to previous characters who slowly became fungal after becoming exposed to Gray Cap weapons, the Partials willingly give up their selves to becoming living tools.
  • Memory Jar: The Memory Bulbs allow the Graycaps to access the memories of recently deceased individuals. You simply sprinkle some spores on the corpse, wait for awhile for the fungoid bulb grow from their head and then eat it. The experience is extremely confusing, at least for humans, trying to perceive range of events in a non-linear fashion, like picking them up randomly from the air. Since the memories always belong to a dead person, experiencing the memory of their deaths can be traumatic, as well. But worst of all, sometimes the process simply goes wrong when a human ingests the bulb; one detective's body breaks down into a mass of spores after going through the process one too many times.
  • N-Word Privileges: Only now do we learn that the Gray Caps prefer to be known as the fanaarcensitii.
  • Unexpected Genre Change: The first two books are Lovecraftian horror. Finch is a more of a noirish detective novel with cyberpunk overtones.
  • Stable Time Loop: Turns out the reason Duncan was able to see the secret meaning in Tonsure’s journal when no one could is that he was Tonsure time travelling in an attempt to Set Right What Once Went Wrong.
  • The Unpronounceable: Fanaarcensitii is among the easiest to pronounce of Gray Cap words. Finch doesn't even know what his boss's actual name is (a "series of clicks and whistles" that sound like hecleriticalic).
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Many characters from the earlier books. Most notably Janice.
  • Vichy Earth: The basic idea applies, even if the Gray Caps aren't extraterrestrial.


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