City of Saints and Madmen
(Tor, £6.99, 496 pages, paperback, first published 2001 in slightly
different form, this edition published 18 March 2005. ISBN 0-330-41893-9.)
City Of Saints And Madmen
consolidates everything we know of the place between two covers. Collecting
all of the known short stories, historical commentaries, art criticism,
questionable zoological treatises, prison interrogations ... in fact,
representations of almost every literary genre you can think of.
is a fictional city teetering on the brink of meta-fictionality, brimming
with strangeness, yet padded with enough nitpicking socio-historical
detail to make an actual city jealous.
Ambergris is a confused city, one which was built upon the torched
ruins of an older and more mysterious metropolis, which was itself
built above an impossible labyrinth of bizarre and incomprehensible
tunnels, home of the simply named but occasionally sinister 'grey caps'
(perhaps best described as 'mushroom men' to non-natives like you and
I). No one has explored the depths of the grey caps homelands and returned
able to properly tell the tale. Still, Ambergris manages to function
by ignoring this dark underside, perhaps because it has quite enough
of its own variety of dark underbelly to be going on with, as is perfectly
evidenced by some of the tales told herein. Perhaps it should be said
that although all is not doom and gloom within Ambergris, it is a strange
and far from safe place to inhabit.
City Of Saints And Madmen is a complex and demanding read, and
never as straightforward as it appears. There are tricks and conceits
aplenty here for lovers of such things. I, however, remained steadfastly
unmoved by and indifferent to it.
Quite why this should be is puzzling even to me. City Of Saints
And Madmen contains most, if not all of (there are no monkeys in
it, sadly) the elements I normally relish in a book. It's a smorgasbord
of strange delights, places, people and things, all narrated in a wild
variety of styles. Then there are the similarities with Mieville's New
Crobuzon, the references -- both oblique and obvious -- to Borges, whole
pages taken up with footnotes ... and yet ... and yet, I found much
of this City Of Saints And Madmen an unrewarding read. Much of
the humour seemed laboured; the fantastic elements are either not
terribly fantastic or are so completely 'out there' (such as the crazed
diaries of a prisoner of the grey caps) as to be too disconnected from
any reality to be made sense of. I guessed the secret of 'Dradin, In
Love' just a few short pages in; art criticism of actual paintings is
not really something I read for pleasure, so criticism of imaginary
ones completely passed me by -- likewise the petulant zoological whimsy
of the naturalist narrator in 'King Squid'.
On the plus side, I did enjoy most of 'The Hoegbotton Guide To The
Early History of Ambergris', with its already mentioned, but stupendous
enough to warrant mentioning once more, footnotes. VanderMeer's ebullient
imagination seemed best managed here; constrained by the necessities
of imitating scholarly non-fiction it felt more sustainable. So I was
sad to leave the Early History behind, but unfortunately I wasn't saddened
to leave Ambergris.
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