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City of Saints and Madmen

by Jeff VanderMeer

(Tor, 6.99, 496 pages, paperback, first published 2001 in slightly different form, this edition published 18 March 2005. ISBN 0-330-41893-9.)

Review by Stuart Carter

cover scanAmbergris 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. 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.

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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