Saturday, June 20, 2009

City of Saints and Madmen

by Jeff Vandermeer

I first discovered this author last year when I participated in the Once Upon A Time II Challenge and came across a post on the author’s web site of the Exhaustive Essential Fantasy Reading List. I was intrigued by this list because it included many of my favorite authors such as Kafka, Saramago, Peake, Borges, Calvino, Marquez and made me rethink what fantasy was.The author also has an interesting blog and it made me curious to read this author.

The City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of short stories that all take place in the city of Ambergris. In its first edition it was just four stories, the deluxe second edition expanded to include an appendix which has more short pieces as well as letters from a director of an insane asylum and an Ambergris glossary. The second edition also included an encrypted story on the dust jacket. The paperback edition which I read includes an additional couple of stories and decrypts the story for you.

Ambergris is a fascinating dark and mysterious city with frightful grey caps or mushroom people, strange afflictions, giant squid in the River Moth, bizarre festivals and rituals and an interesting history. The first three stories in the book which introduced me to Ambergris reminded me of China Mieville’s New Corbuzon, although certainly not in a derivative way. The city is slightly evil, creepy, scary, richly imagined and enticing. I really enjoyed the fact that everything was not explained to you but you only caught glimpses and understanding gradually develops as you read more and more. The fourth story, The Strange Case of X, is my favorite and reminded me more of Kafka or Borges then Mieville. I don’t want to give anything away but it makes the reader, and author question what is reality, inserts the author into the story and makes you think about the writing process. The appendix then plays off of the Strange Case of X and includes materials that were in the possession of X such as other pieces about Ambergris in the form of stories, letters, pamphlets, scientific articles and a glossary. I enjoyed the fact that the appendix not only further developed Ambergris but explored different formats to do so. The appendix reminded me of Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimentation with format in House of Leaves and Revolutions. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and definitely will read more of this author.

1 comment:

Jo said...

I don't very often read fantasy, but you make this one sound really good.