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City of Saints and Madmen
by Jeff VanderMeer
with an introduction by Michael Moorcock
(Cosmos Books, US$15.00 / CAN$20.00 / £12.00, 220 pages, trade paperback; published September 2001; this edition has the subtitle The Book of Ambergris. Extended edition published by Prime Books, US$40.00, 218 pages plus 226 pages of additional material; March 2002.)

If, as has often been argued, the novella is the perfect length for speculative fiction, then City of Saints and Madmen is cover scan - Cosmos editionpotentially the perfect book: four novellas, including the World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake", by one of the most consistently elegant and interesting of current practitioners.

But, just to complicate matters, it should be pointed out that this is actually two books: the Cosmos trade paperback is, indeed, a fine example of speculative fiction close to its best; the Prime hardback edition, though, is twice the length, crammed with a wide range of additional material.

The Cosmos edition, has already started to appear on the lists of best collections of 2001; the Prime edition will certainly repeat that, as one of the best of 2002. I don't think there's a 600 page edition planned for 2003...

Jeff VanderMeer is a writer I admire immensely, even if he's not always a writer I wholeheartedly enjoy.

In a publishing age where it can be so easy for a writer of talent to make the safe commercial bets -- or, more accurately, to avoid the greatest commercial risks -- those individuals who doggedly plough their own furrows should be cherished. And VanderMeer's furrow is quite unlike anyone else's.

Each of the major novellas in this collection is different, just as each is unmistakably Vandermeerian. By this I mean that they occupy his distinctive fantastical milieu, the city of Ambergris -- a locale identified by Moorcock, Miéville and others as one of the most significant in contemporary fantasy. The voice VanderMeer employs is uniform in its richness and striving for just the right word and yet it varies dramatically as the author adopts a tone and phrasing appropriate to the story being told: the eccentric and curmudgeonly academic Duncan Shriek in "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek", or the lovelorn poet of "Dradin, In Love", for example.

I'll readily share the blame where my admiration doesn't stretch to overt enjoyment: sometimes reading VanderMeer is a collaboration between author and reader (even more so than is always the case) and it can be hard to keep up with the man. For the reader who likes to know exactly what to expect from an author, the world of Jeff VanderMeer will come as a challenge -- particularly in the extended hardback edition of this work, where the author has been given full rein and has clearly revelled in the opportunity to explore ways to portray his world.

Michael Moorcock puts it well in his introduction:

"To be sure, this density of narrative was a little demanding to the reader used to the single sentimental plot which passes for story in most modern tales, as if there were only one truth, and only one way of uttering it, one character of central interest, one view to which you should be sympathetic."

Why don't I just say it? Fantasy that makes you work. No wonder this isn't (yet) a mass market paperback from one of the big publishers. And it's a shame, because at his best VanderMeer is one of our leading writers.

The book(s) opens with "Dradin, In Love" (available elsewhere in infinity plus, along with a new interview with the author). Dradin is a missionary, down on his luck and looking for work when he spies a woman in a window -- a chance happening, but also a momentous one, for he falls in love with her immediately. But then, his dilemma: how to act on this sudden love? A gift, perhaps... and so the seduction begins, and the mystery, for just as Dradin seduces his love, VanderMeer seduces the reader.

As VanderMeer admits in his interview, not much happens in the first two thirds of this novella. A large part of "Dradin, In Love" could be summarised as: a man walks around a city. But there's far more to it than that: this is a love song, dedicated to the city -- a marvellous place of low-lifes and decay, fecund with bizarre and deadly fungal growths and home to the mysterious race of mushroom dwellers; this is a yearning, lyrical character study edged with darkness. "Dradin, In Love" is full of bizarre imagery, and baroque description of a warped, Dickensian city; the prose is poetic and powerful, underscored with heartfelt passion and incisive wit -- sometimes subtle, sometimes fired across the bows:

"There is only One God," Dradin had said. "What's his name?" the chieftain asked. "God," replied Dradin. "How bloody boring," the chieftain said. "Please go away."

The earlier chapbook edition of "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek" is reviewed at length elsewhere in infinity plus. Brian Stableford is quoted on the cover of the earlier edition that "the greatest challenge facing any modern author is to produce a tale unlike any that has ever been produced before, but Jeff has met that challenge head on and answered it triumphantly". He has indeed. The novella recounts the story of the man who founded the city of Ambergris, the story presented as a history booklet written by a wonderfully dry historian with his own agenda. It is a superb piece of work.

The World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake" is, ironically, perhaps the weakest of the four centrepiece novellas. It is, inevitably, full of wonderful prose and particularly perceptive characterisation, but the plot logic does make you wonder -- why certain events are set up as they are, indeed why they need to happen at all...

"The Transformation of Martin Lake" tells of the events that form the turning point in the artistic career of Martin Lake, when he is transformed from struggling artist to creative genius. Lake is a delicately etched character, treading a careful path through the dangers of Ambergris -- a city notorious for devouring innocents whole, but also one riven by the recent death of the composer-politician Voss Bender, a split between those who think his death a tragedy and those who think it a blessed relief. One day, Lake receives a mysterious envelope and, within, an invitation that will lead to his defining work.

"The Strange Case of X" is set in a wonderfully forbidding hospital-like institution -- all branching corridors, dead lightbulbs and damp. A patient, X, is "trapped between the hemispheres of his own brain", the makings of "an excellent thesis on guilt" -- X believes that Ambergris is actually a real place. This novella, the closing item in the paperback edition of the collection, is a delightfully playful study of reality and creativity and, not so much word play as mind play. Superb!

cover scan - Prime edition

But there's more.

Where the paperback edition ends, the hardback edition is only half-complete. The appendix in this edition consists of documentation put together by X's doctor, a fascinating layering of fictional "evidence", deepening and twisting the mind play initiated by the novella itself.

It's in the appendix -- a wild assortment of notes, documentation, stories apparently by other authors (but maybe not), off-beat wonderings and explorations -- that Jeff VanderMeer's extremes of literary playfulness come to the fore. Perhaps most obscurely, one story is presented in encrypted form -- an intriguing idea, as the reader must write each word, experiencing the text more intimately than ever, but particularly hard work for a reviewer working from unbound page proofs! (A decrypted text is available from the author on request.) The appendix even includes a fictional history of the fonts used in the book (and of some others, like the wonderful Porfal Erogenous, with characters ranging from the erotic to the downright pornographic)! The items in the appendix are at times funny, at times over-long, and always intriguing as they deepen and twist the superb creation that is Ambergris.

One danger of this facsimile approach is that many of the forms being parodied are reference forms -- most people don't, for example, read a 27 page bibliography or a 43 page glossary from start to finish; they plough through such resources for research, or skim through, looking for something in particular. The glossary is full of wit, mystery and intriguing vignettes, but it is by no means an easy read.

So while these appendices add great depth to the book, they're not easy on the reader: one can admire the cleverness and humour, but it's never as satisfying as the more conventional (the term is used here relatively -- Jeff VanderMeer is never going to be conventional) pieces of fiction. There are examples of such fiction here in the appendix, too, although only "The Cage" reaches the heights of the four central novellas.

"The Cage" opens with an inventory of items (and people) in a room: preserved animals, framed daguerreotypes, assorted items of furniture, a damaged, blood-spattered clock, books, and a solicitor and his clients, waiting patiently for Robert Hoegbotton to put a price on the assorted goods. An unusual opening, it gives VanderMeer opportunity to slip in slivers of tragedy, hints that something awful has happened and may happen again. Hoegbotton's relationship with his wife is a fascinating little study, illuminating both his nature and that of Ambergris and its strange afflictions. Of the new material in this collection (or at least, in the hardback edition), this is a clear highlight.

As well as the appendix, it should be noted that the hardback edition's other main point of interest is the unconventional packaging. Eschewing the conventional approach for mere cover illustration, this edition features smaller illustrations inset into the text of a complete story, which wraps around the dustjacket.

So, buy it you must, as City of Saints and Madmen is clearly one of the best collections both of 2001 and 2002, but which edition should you choose? If you can manage it, go for the hardback: it's a book -- simply as an object -- unlike any I've previously encountered, but also, although much of the new material is less accessible than that in the shorter edition, it's clearly worth it for the even greater depth and for gems like "The Cage". You won't be disappointed by the paperback, of course, but you'll wonder... you'll wonder just what you're missing.

Review by Keith Brooke.

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© Keith Brooke 16 March 2002