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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Mushroom Blues by Adrian M. Gibson (reviewed by Matthew Higgins)

 

Official Author Website
Order Mushroom Blues over HERE
 
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFO: Adrian M. Gibson is a Canadian author, podcaster and illustrator (as well as occasional tattoo artist). He was born in Ontario, Canada, but grew up in British Columbia. He studied English Literature and has worked in music journalism, restaurants, tattoo studios, clothing stores and a bevy of odd jobs. In 2021, he created the SFF Addicts podcast, which he co-hosts with fellow author M. J. Kuhn. The two host in-depth interviews with an array of science fiction and fantasy authors, as well as writing masterclasses.

 
Adrian has a not-so-casual obsession with mushrooms, relishes in the vastness of nature and is a self-proclaimed “child of the mountains.” He enjoys cooking, music, video games, politics and science, as well as reading fiction and comic books. He lives in Quito, Ecuador with his wife and sons.
 

OFFICIAL BOOK REVIEW: TWO YEARS AFTER a devastating defeat in the decade-long Spore War, the island nation of Hōppon and its capital city of Neo Kinoko are occupied by invading Coprinian forces. Its Fungal citizens are in dire straits, wracked by food shortages, poverty and an influx of war refugees. Even worse, the corrupt occupiers exploit their power, hounding the native population.
 
As a winter storm looms over the metropolis, NKPD Detective Henrietta Hofmann begrudgingly partners up with mushroom-headed patrol officer Koji Nameko to investigate the mysterious murders of Fungal and half-breed children. Their investigation drags them deep into the seedy underbelly of a war-torn city, one brimming with colonizers, criminal gangs, racial division and moral decay.
 
In order to solve the case and unravel the truth, Hofmann must challenge her past and embrace Fungal ways. What she and Nameko uncover in the midst of this frigid wasteland will chill them to the core, but will they make it through the storm alive?
 
 
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Mushroom Blues is a tightly written trip through the criminal underbelly of a pulpy cyberpunk inspired city. Themes of colonialism, trauma and addiction deepen the central narrative as the plot races feverishly to its powerfully psychedelic climax.
 
Whilst our 2 main protagonists receive absorbing character development, the antagonists did suffer a little in comparison, despite attempts to tie them into the emotional backbone of the city known as ‘Neo Kinoko’. A little more time in the latter half of the novel devoted to exploring our villains more intimately would’ve elevated Mushroom Blues even further into one of my favourite reads of the year.
 
As it stands, devotees of both crime and post apocalyptic SFF should find plenty to dig their teeth into with this socially conscious sci fi captivating me from start to finish. Gibson is using the forces of nature (mushrooms) to *become* a force of nature in the SFF world. Bring on spore city!!
 
Mushroom Blues is sci-fi for those who don’t typically engage with the genre…
 
I can have confidence in such a bold statement because this statement IS me. I know that’s a horrible thing to admit as a SFF fan, but sci fi has just never quite attracted me to the extent epic fantasy does.
 
But you see, Adrian is clearly a master villain at play, designing Mushroom Blues as part of his nefarious plot to entice new readers into the Sci-fi arena through the lens of crime, and leave us all stuffing our faces with that common childhood food nightmare… mushrooms shudders . Meanwhile reading late into the night, addicting us to turning pages like this s***t is crack. I mean what was he on when he wrote this… mushrooms?! I’m onto you Mr Gibson!!
 
Jokes aside, it’s clear from the start that Gibson has poured his entire soul into this novel, from the characters through to the cleverly realised world and cultures Gibson weaves in. Readers certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore, and Gibson makes this clear from the off when we commence upon the gruesome discovery of a child's body washed up on the shores beside Neo Kinoko. This is a gritty character driven crime noir and boy does Gibson know how to write the hell out of that.
 

Our primary protagonist is the detective Henrietta Hoffman. Recovering alcoholic? Grumpy and disillusioned? Troubled past? Disregard for authority and playing by the rules? Secret heart of gold? Yes, Gibson hits all the grizzled detective tropes here, but the importance here is that it never felt like a simple rehash. Gibson knows how to embed his character with a personality that makes this work; Hoffman isn’t the crotchety old detective for the sake of it, but because her character demands it, and her evolution throughout this novel was one of my favourite aspects.
 
Joining Henrietta is the sole fungal cop within Neo Kinoko and wider Coprinia, Koji. Unfortunately for him, he’s been partnered with Henrietta, a vehement mycophobe. As a fungal, Koji is not that different to the humans, well besides the mushroom cap for a head and his ability to connect with and sense other fungals.
 
But Koji is also a character forced between two worlds. Shunned by his family for working for a government that violently oppresses him and his people, and having to contend with the everyday racism thrown at him by his colleagues within the police force, Koji’s heart for justice and affable nature made him one of my favourite characters in recent times. Our boy Koji must be protected at all costs, you hear me Gibson!
 
With Henrietta as our main entry to this fantastical world, we see the true depravity of an empire run on prejudice, the same prejudice Henrietta carries herself. Gibson does a fantastic job of truly immersing readers into the torturous mindset of a mycophobe living in a world of fungi. When Henrietta squirms at the fungi that build the foundations of so much of this city, one really feels her disgust and I definitely found myself shuddering at various points throughout the narrative as Gibson vividly paints these uncomfortable sequences.
 
Needless to say, Henrietta is not best pleased at having to partner with *shock horror* a fungal. To make matters worse, this is a politically fraught case, with tensions rising between the subjugated Fungal population of Neo Kinoko; the city seemingly ready to burst into a blaze of revolutionary violence.
 
Only a few pages in with a riot about to break out it is clear this novel is going to progress at a breakneck pace. However in contrast to my preconceived notions, Gibson (for the most part) does not progress the plot at the expense of character and worldbuilding. It felt incredibly natural, to the point that I didn’t really notice the worldbuilding, as it's so embedded into the progressing narrative. When one considers that said narrative involves high speed vehicle chases, explosions, gangster warfare and so much more, often within a few pages of one another, it truly is remarkable how well the storyline does progress.
 
But these bombastic explosions of action, which fit so neatly into this gritty underworld, are not the heart of this novel. At its core I think the novel is about change. This is most obvious through Henrietta’s gradual acceptance of the Hopponese (Fungals), and through that. acceptance of herself and the things SHE *cannot* change.
 
Fuelled by bitterness and regret, an exile for sins of the past, Henrietta is certainly not an instantly likeable character. For one she’s an unapologetic racist, and being inside her head one simply cannot escape that uncomfortably heavy mindset.
 
It’s a fascinating way to explore this post war Japanese infused cyberpunk environment, both socially and structurally, through the eyes of a protagonist who despises almost every part of it. To Henrietta it symbolises everything that led her here and thus she takes it out daily on the world she inhabits.
 
But as we are drawn deeper into the darker parts of this world, Henrietta begins to see the Hopponese not as abominations to be used and discarded, but as people.
 
We are shown many different aspects of the Hopponese community, their families, the way they connect with the world around them, and all the ways the Neo Kinokan government has failed and abused them.
 
Through this lens, Mushroom Blues is devastatingly bold in forcing one to confront the ways our own societies have entrenched structural poverty and inequality in communities which those of us in the west have historically taken advantage of.
 
But Gibson uses this as a starting point through which to champion humanity’s great capacity for change.
 
So much of hatred is born of ignorance but through Henrietta, Gibson gives us that most important emotion of all, hope. Hope that when confronted with the ugly truths our society perpetuates, people *can* grow and change.
 
 Similar to PL Stuart’s eminent protagonist Prince Othrun of the Drowned Kingdom saga, readers are confronted with a character who is entirely too human in all their many flaws. It is a bare faced mirror to our own ugly shortcomings, entrenched in our enclaves of political subjectivity where we convince ourselves the ‘othering’ and rejection of those who differ from us is somehow an acceptable form of intolerance, never allowing for the power of change to work in people’s lives.
 
 But if you stick through the uncomfortableness of a protagonist so unapologetically prejudiced you will find a character on a journey, a character most would have given up on a long time ago, reflecting the way Henrietta has given up on herself. Putting herself at the mercy of her latent alcoholism rather than confronting her own self hatred and rejection of self forgiveness, by the time we meet her, Henrietta has given up.
 
But when forced to confront the ignorance of her own fears it leads her to recognise the spark of humanity that connects us all. This is a wonderful message woven into the narrative with defiant grit and gravitas without taking away from the novel’s entertainment value.
 
As author Pl Stuart (talking about his own series) wonderfully puts it “... even ordinary flawed people can change. We’re all redeemable. Ordinary people can change, evolve, and make a difference, not just fictional Princes.…”
 
By the time the critical junctures of Mushroom Blues have come around, Henrietta has undergone a transition which felt both natural and earnestly earnt. To take so unlikeable a character and transform them within such a short page count without undermining their arc is a feat a debut author such as Adrian should be incredibly proud of.
 
The other forefront of change comes through the Hopponese people and their fight for justice and acceptance in a society structured to subjugate and abuse those deemed lesser.
 

Taking inspiration from indigenous cultures from across our diverse world, the Hopponese have a deeply realised culture, wholly rooted in connection which was an aspect that really inspired me to consider my actions in our own world. This sense of interconnection flowed through the heart of this novel and left me exploring the real life inspirations behind Adrian’s imaginings, something I strongly encourage everyone to do as it's truly fascinating.
 
Showcasing the beauty of such a culture enables the reader to truly empathise with the Hopponese and their campaign for just change. As the novel progresses there is a palpable sense of the political tension rumbling beneath the surface, an eruption accelerated by the criminal proceedings taking place within our main plot.
 
Thus Gibson weaves his words with the power of not just personal change but societal change, and the power of our own voices when we stand together. It is a clarion call to those of us who feel disenfranchised and voiceless to stand together and fight for our inherent capacity to change the direction of our societal destiny.
 
If I’m making this book sound rather heavy in its themes and political undertones, that's because all of this is central to the story Gibson is telling here.
 
If you are vehemently anti woke’ then perhaps this is not a book that will appeal to you (although one could consider it full of uncomfortable truths which may be important to expose yourself to) but Gibson never loses sight of the entertainment value in the midst of some heavy themes.
 
 It’s cinematic in visuals and scale, it's easy and breezy a lot of the time,its full of humour, heart and horror, whilst still encapsulating some profound messaging sans virtue signalling. Where it slightly falters is in the time devoted to its antagonists, the motives of whom demanded an exploration that never quite got enough development. There are certainly many interesting developments along the way, and the mystery was mostly satisfying as a personal fan of a good crime novel.
 
However when events start to unravel and our antagonists step out of the shadows I was admittedly left with a slight element of confusion (although perhaps a re-read will help with this as inevitably I missed clues along the way).
 
The conclusion does comes neck-breakingly fast so that it didn’t allow us the time to dig deeper into the motivations and our villains became more typical caricatures in contrast to the more thoughtful exploration of the novel’s themes up to that stage.
 
One of my favourite chapters in fact was one where time was taken to sit with one of our protagonists as they go through transformative events in the midst of chaos. There wasn't much plot progression, but it didn't matter because it deepened our relationship with the character and i love that Gibson took the time to slow down and share that with us. With the same care devoted to our antagonists this novel would've been truly brilliant.
 
Alas what we are left with is an incredibly capable and enthralling debut which has left Gibson on the instant purchase list for life. An complex and layered novel mixing heart pounding action noir with heart rending social discourse.
 
Spore City can't come soon enough

 

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