Book Review: Hummingbird Salamander, by Jeff VanderMeer

This week, I’m reviewing Hummingbird Salamander, the new novel from Jeff VanderMeer. Having been on something of a VanderMeer binge of late, I was thrilled to receive a proof copy of the book from Matt Clacher through Twitter – huge thanks to him.

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

In the near future, the world is sliding ever closer to the point of no return. Species are becoming extinct with increasing regularity and weather patterns are more unreliable than ever. Personal privacy is at a premium, something narrator “Jane Smith” is all too aware of in her role as a security analyst. When she’s given a key to a storage unit containing a taxidermied hummingbird, it sets her on the trail of deceased eco terrorist Silvina, entangling her in a conspiracy which could have dire consequences for the entire world.

Running with a theme that’s increasingly popular in speculative fiction at the moment (see also: The Ministry for the Future, Eden, Ghost Species, Goldilocks, etc.), VanderMeer’s cold rage at humanity’s treatment of the natural world is palpable throughout Hummingbird Salamander. An early realisation that the hummingbird Jane holds in her hands is extinct provokes despair, our collective inability to see a creature so perfectly formed as anything but wondrous – miraculous, even – a crime. There’s a recurring sense of mounting dread too, as Jane refers throughout to news items which indicate another effect of the climate crisis, or talks about the effects of it directly.

Thematically at least, Hummingbird Salamander is strong. VanderMeer’s stock in trade is, of course, creating amazing worlds, whether they be the post-apocalyptic biotech wonderland of Borne, the underground flesh crafting hell of Veniss Underground or the warped reality of Annihilation. Here, however, is a world very close to our own. So close, in fact, that bar minute intrusions from some pieces of technology, it’s indistinguishable. It would be grossly entitled to lament the perceived lack of a brave new world here; VanderMeer’s prose is wonderful whatever he’s writing, and that’s no different here. It does mean, however, that there are fewer places to hide when it comes to explaining how things join up.

There are more than a few leaps of logic and barely filled in plot holes; how Jane gets certain extremely pertinent details, for example, is mostly just explained away by her being a security consultant, as is her ability to stay one step ahead of her pursuers. Little explanation or thought is really given as to how she actually manages both these feats, the latter of which is especially difficult to believe given how incredibly noticeable VanderMeer has made the character. As a six-foot-tall former bodybuilder and wrestler, she’s excitingly unconventional as a main character, but it does make her (one would think) rather easy to track down – provided her description of herself is true.

Jane’s narration keeps us largely in the dark about what’s going on too, in such a way that it’s difficult to understand why she pursues Silvina’s clues so obsessively. We are given some insight into her personal motivations to find the meaning behind the mysterious note eventually, but this feels overdue by the time it eventually crystallises. The fact that what we’re reading is supposedly her account of events makes all of this deliberate obfuscation on her part too, which it’s difficult to see the logic behind. Her changing of names – including her own – as well as hinting that she has changed people’s appearances, means that she’s a narrator that’s not so much unreliable as completely unknowable. Jane isn’t unlikable though; her bravery and resourcefulness are certainly big plus points. But her coolness towards those closest to her seems at odds with her nascent environmentalism and emotional connection to SIlvina. It’s not so much that her actions towards her family are out of character, more that her decision to marry and start a family in the first place was, from what we see of her.

Towards the end, things do start to coalesce. Not everything is explained, but enough is that events, when viewed as a whole, do follow on from each other reasonably well for the most part. Revelations come thick and fast, with the pace picking up to accommodate them all. The conclusion is undoubtedly the most distinctly VanderMeer part in its presentation, but it’s not so much a twist as an inventive and totally unexpected reveal, with nary a hint that it was being built up to. It’s certainly entertaining and memorable, but it doesn’t really feel particularly justified or earned. It’s a slightly frustrating end to proceedings after a flurry of more action-packed moments, which are genuinely quite exciting.

Hummingbird Salamander certainly has its moments, but is hamstrung by a need to tie the reader up in knots with its conspiracies, which at times are so intricate that it feels more like a satirical take on the thriller genre than anything else. Couple that with a narrator that’s as evasive as Jane and it’s a little like being guided through a fog bank by a will-o’-the-wisp.

Hummingbird Salamander is published by 4th Estate and releases in the UK on the 15th of April. You can order your own copy through this affiliate link.  

Currently reading: The Last Colony, John Scalzi
Currently listening: Through the Gate Eternal, Demiser

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Hummingbird Salamander, by Jeff VanderMeer

  1. […] Next, Caroline Hardaker’s Composite Creatures allowed me to cross off the prompt for a premise which scared me. Set in a world that’s recognisably our own, large parts of the NHS have been privatised, as humanity increasingly sicken and die from the lingering toxicity of the planet we’ve poisoned. Main character Norah and her new partner Art acquire a strange creature from the mysterious private clinic Easton Grove, the survival of which is tied to their continued health. What scares me about this? Pretty much all of it. An Earth that’s so poisoned that it’s poisoning us back, and a health service which we can’t turn to. Nightmarish. You can read my review of Composite Creatures here. […]

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  2. I have only read the Southern Reach trilogy and Borne but this sounds exactly like what I’d expect from Vandermeer. I don’t often enjoy unreliable/unknowable narrators (love how you described that) but I like them when he writes them. Have you read Dead Astronauts? If so my question is whether you’d recommend this over that…

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    1. I haven’t read Dead Astronauts yet, it’s on my shelf to get to soon though. Of those of his that I have read, I’d say this is definitely the weakest, and by some margin. I’d happily recommend any of those others, but would struggle to recommend this one in all honesty. One to wait to pick up in paperback rather than rushing out to buy, at least in my opinion.

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