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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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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I’m unsure how to categorise this book, it defies genre placement and is wonderfully original, VanderMeer surely has a strange and vivid imagination! It starts out with the short story ‘Dradin, In Love’ - a tragic story with a main character that is strangely pitiful and yet still compelling. Then the book heads into a fictional account of the city of Ambergris which is fascinating and wittily written. And onward through the biography of a fictional artist, a clever piece of meta-fiction and an expansive appendix that fleshes out the city of Ambergris further and goes into detail about the strangest parts of the astounding city. This is a skillfully crafted and impressive book that is executed so well you feel ambergris come to life as you read through the pages.
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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