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on 24 March 2005
On the surface, City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of short stories set in the fantastic city of Ambergris, stories suffused with sorrow and wry humour, some of them straightforward, others told through various metafictional conceits and devices. On the surface, we have four novellas and an appendix of sundry shorter delights. But apart from the fact that each story is an absolute nugget in its own right, there's much more going on here in the way these tales relate to each other. As the novellas progress, various fake historical glossaries, academic footnotes and art history interpolations are used to make Ambergris far more rounded and real than most fantasy backdrops, building VanderMeer's city of musicians, poets and sinister mushroom-dwellers in the reader's imagination until in the last of the four novellas we are taken right through the looking glass. In an insanely ambitious move reminiscent of Alasdair Gray's Lanark, or a writer such as Borges, fact and fiction are flipped inside-out and the reader is plunged deep into a world all the truer because it is given to us through the artefacts of Ambergris --illustrated chapbooks, monograms, bibliographies, magazine clippings or lunatic's notes. Metafiction can be tricky in its tricksiness, but VanderMeer pulls it off wonderfully. In a way this becomes a novel with the reader himself as the protagonist, a traveller wandering through VanderMeer's strange, dark, literary vision. And, lit with flashes of sheer brilliance, VanderMeer's Ambergris is more than just worth a visit. This is a must-read book, a delightful treat for the fan of fantasy as a genre, for those who enjoy Angela Carter, Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any of the Magic Realists. In the end this book is for anyone who likes their books intelligent, playful, comic, tragic and with a vision just a wee bit skewed from the norm.
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on 19 August 2006
Having been a fan of the PC adventure-fantasy game Zork in the 90s, reading Vandermeer's wonderfully bizarre book brings back memories. Memories of a strange world where magic lurks round the corner, of insanity, murder, weird fetishes. A world that's so fantastic, yet so believable.

Vandermeer has written a book that I wish I could have written myself, I'm so jealous! He's created an entire mythos surrounding squid and mushrooms, psychedelic! This paperback edition is a compilation of several of Vandermeer's other works, but it works beautifully on several levels. There's just so much to take in - different fonts, different perspectives, different formats of writing, strange illustrations, appendices, indexes, it's mind-boggling. Not to mention thoroughly entertaining and stupendous reading. EXCELLENT! Highly recommended, whether you are a fan of post-modern science fiction/fantasy or not.
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VINE VOICEon 26 June 2006
This is a wonderful introduction to the fantasy city of Ambergris, combining the fantasy world-building of China Mieville with a healthy dose of humour, and a dark Lovecraftian underbelly of horror concerning the bizarre fungus-like `Mushroom Dwellers' that live beneath the city. Less a novel as such and more a collection of pieces, the main part of this book is comprised of 4 stunning novellas, while an equally long appendix provides numerous short stories and fragments to complement the whole. If I do have a slight quibble (and it's the only thing that prevented me from giving this full marks) it's that the book feels slightly lop-sided, as while the 350-odd page AppendiX (sic) does contain much entertainment it also shows a little repetition of theme and inevitably feels rather bitty compared to the main four novellas. Still, this is a brilliant fantasy novel, with Vandermeer displaying a real love of language with prose to match his bizarre ideas, while the post-modern unreliable narrative that creeps in with the story of `X' (a fictitious character or the creator of a fictitious world himself?) only makes things more interesting. This is also one of the best designed mass market paperbacks I've ever seen, with great layouts and differing fonts and illustrations giving the illusion of a bundle of various documents. Excellent stuff.
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on 8 April 2004
Come and see a city, one like no other, filled with more madmen than saints.
You'll find no farmboys possesing magic talents here, no buff warriors or mighty sorcerors... instead the beautiful yet darkly secretive Ambergris is populated by out-of-work missionaries, struggling artists, unhinged marinebiologists (and at least one slightly unhinged author) and other still more curious individuals. Each is led into the darkest corners of both the city and the human consciousness, and every tale is woven through with the silent question that no Ambergrisian can answer - the darkest of all the city's secrets.
Not only does VanderMeer present his readers with finely crafted, delicately sculpted prose on every turning page but as the readers are propelled into appendices and glossaries, footnotes, bibliographies they are continuously rewarded with the most imaginative and most fully-realised fiction being written today.
It may also be the most beautifully presented artifact of fiction you could hope to possess - painstakingly designed from cover to cover, filled with illustrations and diagrams, each designed to draw the reader further down the rabbit hole.
By turns darkly horrific, emotionally charged and hilariously comic, City of Saints and Madmen is a wonderfully clever, crazed and adventurous collection of experiences you cannot miss out on.
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on 27 February 2005
The City of Saints and Madmen is an impressive work - a wonderful piece of escapism which I have thoroughly enjoyed.
The legendary city of Ambergris is a timeless and fascinating place with strange recurring motifs - grey caps, mushroom dwellers, squid, a firm called Hoegbottom and sons, and various fighting factions, poets, and artists - to name just a few. As I read I became totally absorbed in this fantastical world with its own rules and surreal history. Even though I know this place does not really exist I kept believing that it does: the stories are convincing, and the characters seem real even though they cannot be. I realise now that I have finished that everything must has been worked out with an extraordinary vision because there was not a single instance where I did not believe that what was happening could have happened, somewhere far away just beyond the limit of the world I know. The most decisive and chilling aspect of the history is the Silence. This haunts the book and it haunts me still - it is the fear of the unknown, only in part ever revealed, which makes the event powerful and disturbing. I thought I could see parallels with various aspects of human history, and the Silence could even be allegorical for certain many unexplained events that have really happened - which I think is always the case in the best Sci-Fi/fantasy writing.
The story of the city gradually evolves in a series of pieces - short stories, letters, papers, even a long and entertaining bibliography - a jigsaw which gradually builds up to something complete and satisfying. It begins very well, but ends especially wonderfully with some beautifully written and gripping stories.
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on 20 September 2014
Having first encountered Jeff VanderMeer’s work in the splendidly odd ‘Annihilation’, it seemed that I may have found another favourite author. This volume, however, may equally have convinced me of the opposite.

This huge book (700’ish pages) consists of four novellas/short stories and a mish-mash of shorter stories plonked into an appendix, all set in the teeming anarchic city of Ambergris. The first story, ‘Dradin in Love’, tells the tale of a priest’s return to the city after a period of missionary work in the jungle and serves as an excellent introduction to the metropolis and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The entire cityscape is superbly detailed and consistently well-imagined while the narrative has pace and mystery (and mushrooms). Things go rapidly downhill, however, in the second offering. This historical guide to the city does succeed in providing a rich context to the city but the profuse and verbose footnotes significantly impeded narrative flow to the point that I stopped reading them. The allegedly award winning ‘The Transformation of Martin Lake’ follows. This is the story of the rise to fame of a struggling artist following an invitation to a bizarre beheading and is a hard read with a most unsatisfying conclusion. This is followed by ‘The Strange Case of Mr. X’ in which the author effectively regales the unfortunate reader with an interview with himself under the guise of a psychiatrist interviewing a patient in an asylum; dull introspection which I skip-read until the closing, not entirely unexpected, twist. Then I hit the appendices which make up over half of the volume, by which time I was thoroughly bored by the whole thing and finally gave up when I hit a whole section printed in an unreadably blobby manual typewriter style typeface.

I really wanted to enjoy my first foray into Ambergris, honest, but I failed miserably. It is very rare for me to put a book down un-finished, but the pompous, pretentious, over-written and over-clever style finally ground me down. There is even one unforgivable ‘off of’. ‘Nuff said.
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on 19 March 2007
I was attracted to "City of Saints and Madmen" due to the other reviews on this site, and it is the first time I have read anything by Jeff VanderMeer. It basically provides a number of short stories concerning the city of Ambergris and its inhabitants. I wanted to say I loved it, but I have seen this kind of book before, and its been done better. There are a lot of similarities with works like "Viriconium" by M John Harrison, which predate it and which taint the originality of the concept. I dare say that if I read this book first I would have enjoyed it more.

Vandermeer is very creative and humorous in his writings, but sometimes he appears to be just a little too pleased with himself. His characterisation is not that great, and it would definitely help if he fleshed out his real human characters more as they battle with the city and its arcane ways.

Could have been a lot better.
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on 12 October 2010
By turns this book has delighted and annoyed me, which has compelled me to write this to try to understand why I have had this response.

The first story is a delight, beautifully written and it slowly introduces the reader to the unusual city that is Ambergris. The story is that of an outsider who falls in love with a woman in a window, and the way that he tries to get her to notice him and reciprocate his love, against a backdrop of a very strange culture.

The second is the story of the origins of the city, written long after the event, with numerous footnotes and scathing comments about the interpretations put on events by the writer's fellow academics/competitors. This is where the mushroom dwellers role in Ambergris is considered, although even so they remain a shady presence.

The third story is the story of a painting, told through the story of the artist from different sources. Each source seems to have a slightly more or less accurate appreciation of the actual events, as revealed by the central narrative. Another outsider, a struggling artist, who is unwittingly pulled centre stage. The story is a little slow to unwind but has some beautiful images within it.

The final story explores the potential links between our real world of Chicago and the imaginary world of Ambergris, through the interrogation of X. I found this the least satisfactory of the four stories, perhaps because there was less room for the delights of Vandermeer's writing, and perhaps because after a little while the outcome becomes rather predictable.

And then there is the AppendiX, which are the writings that X has in his possession in the fourth story. Some of them are interesting and humorous, but parts are rather self-indulgent; do we really need an annotated bibliography of writings about the King Squid that goes on for twenty-odd pages. It's a generalisation I know, but when a book suddenly starts using different fonts I think that it's a bit of a danger signal. There are different fonts and page borders aplenty in the AppendiX.

The frustration comes because each piece of work opens a tiny window onto the big picture that is Ambergris, but ultimately all you have are several tiny windows showing certain aspects in greater or lesser detail, but the full picture remains hidden. Imagine a vast picture over which someone has positioned an advent calendar. Each story opens a window, but by the time you've finished the book you have only revealed a tiny fraction of the picture.

So I suppose what I'm saying is that I want more about Ambergris, I want to know more about the people who live and work there, not just a few outsiders and fanatics. I want to hear about different areas, different roads, the harbour and the government.

I suppose that this would have been an absolutely cracking third or fourth book about Ambergris, had the earlier books put the basic city in place. Since those earlier books don't exist it is really frustrating. But it is also really good.

Update - I have now discovered Shriek: An Afterword and Finch which are set in Ambergris and follow on from this collection of stories. Finch especially is an intriguing cocktail of a book, but I haven't finished Shriek yet. Reviews will follow in the respective places.
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on 1 November 2006
This is the first book that I have read by Jeff vandermeer and I am quite impressed. Dradin in Love is probably my favourite story within its pages.
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on 27 March 2015
This is an excellent collection of ideas
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