Review: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer

‘We have built so many toxic constructs, we cannot see through the latticework. We have built so many mirrors, there are no windows to shatter.’

Jeff VanderMeer tends to be an auto buy author for me. I’ve pretty much been on board since I read Annihilation back in 2018 and saw the spectacular film not long after. There is a certain appeal to me for how he uses New Weird elements mixed with classic scifi tropes, borderline horror and just very compelling characters that often we might not get the name of. Hummingbird Salamander is a different direction, but no less compelling.

From the author of Annihilation, a brilliant speculative thriller of dark conspiracy, endangered species, and the possible end of all things.

Security consultant “Jane Smith” receives an envelope with a key to a storage unit that holds a taxidermied hummingbird and clues leading her to a taxidermied salamander. Silvina, the dead woman who left the note, is a reputed ecoterrorist and the daughter of an Argentine industrialist. By taking the hummingbird from the storage unit, Jane sets in motion a series of events that quickly spin beyond her control.

Soon, Jane and her family are in danger, with few allies to help her make sense of the true scope of the peril. Is the only way to safety to follow in Silvina’s footsteps? Is it too late to stop? As she desperately seeks answers about why Silvina contacted her, time is running out—for her and possibly for the world.

Something I always say about when talking about Jeff VanderMeer’s books is that they have layers. There is always more than meets the eye to his stories and it can take a reader (certainly me) completely off guard. What he’s woven here is the story of one anonymous “Jane Smith” as she is almost randomly picked and thrown into the heart of a conspiracy while the world begins to break down around her. And not just on a personal level, a planetary level.

In true thriller fashion, this all starts with a note from someone Jane doesn’t know, a thin trail and a very random taxidermy hummingbird. This trail the result of Silvina Vilcapampa, a recently deceased heir to a powerfully wealthy family turned environmental activist, bordering on terrorist. We are as lost as Jane is to this point, why pick her? Why a hummingbird? Why the note with it saying ‘Hummingbird……Salamander’? The mystery aspect of the book is something I highly enjoyed. It becomes apparent after a while that as much as “Jane” wishes to remain anonymous, that parts of her own life and her past she has buried insider herself are starting to shine through as a result of Silvina.

Not going to lie, parts of this book were very on the nose and borderline horrifying in parts. As Jane begins to unravel the bigger conspiracy around Silvina, the hummingbird and where she ties in to it, it becomes clear all is not well in the world as a whole. Drones are commonplace to see in neighbour hoods for example, people are wearing masks in cities as a precaution against facial recognition. There are mentions as well of an approaching pandemic that noone seems to care about (too real). A lot of animals are extinct, including the titular hummingbird that Jane is tasked with keeping. All this rich detail is only a backdrop for what is happening with the narrator and is testament to the world building ability VanderMeer has showed in previous work like Borne and Area X.

It’s hard to connect with a main character purposefully keeping you at arms length as well. Further still one who is being kept further away from the truth of their task. But Jane is one I was definitely impressed with. There is the really interesting attribute her what is always categorised as “male” characteristics, where we are told she is not only very tall but also extremely strong having been close to being a pro wrestler. This book is so cinematic as well that I couldn’t help but picture a woman like Gwendoline Christie playing Jane. But the fact she can be very unlikable and selfish, forgetting to ask her daughters well being in places or mentions of one night stands at conferences while also being so vulnerable, especially when her own past is revealed, is really good character work.

This is definitely a challenging book, changing it’s lane several times and refusing to be just one thing. A cautionary tale, a noir mystery, a lite scifi adventure and a tragic tale of losing family is just some of the things it is. But it’s also none of these things, it’s a story and a warning but it ends with somehow a message of hope. I can’t recommend this enough and would stay it’s a great point to start reading Jeff VanderMeer.

Thank you to 4th Estate Books for the copy of this book in exchange for review, thank you for checking in everyone and happy reading to you all.

★★★★.5/5

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