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Ambergris #1

City of Saints and Madmen

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In City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer has reinvented the literature of the fantastic. You hold in your hands an invitation to a place unlike any you’ve ever visited–an invitation delivered by one of our most audacious and astonishing literary magicians.

City of elegance and squalor. Of religious fervor and wanton lusts. And everywhere, on the walls of courtyards and churches, an incandescent fungus of mysterious and ominous origin. In Ambergris, a would-be suitor discovers that a sunlit street can become a killing ground in the blink of an eye. An artist receives an invitation to a beheading–and finds himself enchanted. And a patient in a mental institution is convinced he’s made up a city called Ambergris, imagined its every last detail, and that he’s really from a place called Chicago.…

By turns sensuous and terrifying, filled with exotica and eroticism, this interwoven collection of stories, histories, and “eyewitness” reports invokes a universe within a puzzlebox where you can lose–and find–yourself again.

704 pages, Paperback

First published May 1, 2002

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About the author

Jeff VanderMeer

238 books13.6k followers
NYT bestselling writer Jeff VanderMeer has been called “the weird Thoreau” by the New Yorker for his engagement with ecological issues. His most recent novel, the national bestseller Borne, received wide-spread critical acclaim and his prior novels include the Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance). Annihilation won the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards, has been translated into 35 languages, and was made into a film from Paramount Pictures directed by Alex Garland. His nonfiction has appeared in New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, Slate, Salon, and the Washington Post. He has coedited several iconic anthologies with his wife, the Hugo Award winning editor. Other titles include Wonderbook, the world’s first fully illustrated creative writing guide. VanderMeer served as the 2016-2017 Trias Writer in Residence at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He has spoken at the Guggenheim, the Library of Congress, and the Arthur C. Clarke Center for the Human Imagination.

VanderMeer was born in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. This experience, and the resulting trip back to the United States through Asia, Africa, and Europe, deeply influenced him.

Jeff is married to Ann VanderMeer, who is currently an acquiring editor at Tor.com and has won the Hugo Award and World Fantasy Award for her editing of magazines and anthologies. They live in Tallahassee, Florida, with two cats and thousands of books.

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Profile Image for J.G. Keely.
546 reviews10.2k followers
March 23, 2018
Sometimes it doesn't matter what you hear about a book, all the promise described in glowing reviews--it doesn't matter who suggests it, on what authority or with what arguments. Sometimes, you're still going to come out the other side disappointed, confused how this could possibly be the book you had heard about, trying to reconcile the words of friends and fellow reviewers with what you have found on the page.

I'm there again. There's something in it reminiscent of the moment after a car accident, where you're sitting in disbelief, trying to make sense of it, half laughing, half shaking your head.

It's not that I don't see it--the book certainly has the right markers: the self-awareness, the meta-fictions, the ironies and self-contradictions, the allusions and in-jokes, the big, rearing ugliness of modern literature. And yet to say that it has those markers doesn't mean much--it's like saying that a math book has equations, it doesn't mean that they add up to anything.

Indeed, markers are the easiest things to fake--we all know what a piece of literature is supposed to look like, and so we can take the right words and the right techniques and include them. But of course, you can use a word without understanding its definition, and you can adopt a technique without ever considering why a great author used it.

The most obvious marker, at first glance, is the self-awareness of the text, what the kids these days call 'meta'--where not only are you writing, you're also commenting on the fact that you're writing, making jokes and references, reminding the reader of the artificiality of what they are reading.

It's a trick at least as old as Ariosto and Cervantes, but which has become especially popular in this Post-Modern Age of Skepticism. After all, we're not supposed to trust authority, we now take it for granted that the book is not the 'Logos', the Word of Truth, and so it makes sense for the author to step out occasionally and acknowledge that. And yet, since it is the default now, it's really not enough simply to be self-aware, just to poke at the fourth wall for the sake of doing it--that's played out. Hell, even Ariosto had more purpose and direction to his fourth wall breaking, using it to comment on social mores of the time.

Much of the self-awareness takes the form of a jokey, silly tone, and much like in Iain Banks, it seems to be an ill fit for otherwise dire and serious stories. More than that, VanderMeer is constantly harping on it without much payoff--there are some truly clever pieces of wit, here or there, but for every one that hits its mark, we have to wade through ten others that don't.

It starts to feel like being at a party with a guy who has to make some comment about everything, who keeps mentioning that people think he's funny, who tells you how funny his jokes are before he tells them, says 'wait for it!' before each punchline, and then explains the joke once it's done.

In King Squid he writes:
“... six hundred continuous pages of spurious text that no true squidologist can read today without bleeding profusely from the nose, ear, and mouth.”

And it just feels like a bad internet comment--it's edgy, full of hyperbole, and so non-specific that it could have been appended to pretty much anything. That lack of precision makes humor impossible--because being funny means hitting your target right in the heart, not just pelting some refuse near it. From the same story:
“... the Society ... was unwise to choose as observers the Fatally Unobservant.”

The observers were unobservant. That's not even wordplay, it doesn't even reach to the level of the humble pun--and it's giving me unpleasant flashbacks to early Discworld.

In his introduction, Moorcock compares VanderMeer to Peake, but he just lacks any subtlety, and it all smacks of trying too hard, just worrying incessantly at the edges until they all begin to fray. When he mentions the Borges Bookstore (on Albumuth Boulevard, natch), which he does in every story, it's a nudge that threatens to bowl the reader over, a wink by way of facial spasm.

It's not only with his jokes and allusions that VanderMeer leaves nothing to chance, he has characters tell us in footnotes when we are supposed to think they are funny, he mentions when a certain part is deliberately over-written, or that we shouldn't trust some character, or that this point-of-view shift indicates a change in the character's personal identity.

Yet this is a book that people say is challenging, is intellectual and mysterious, something you have to put together yourself, piece by piece. My idea of a challenging book is one that trusts the reader to come to their own conclusions, to figure out the themes for themselves, and to find humor where it lies, not one that leads them along by the hand. Sure, sometimes his instructions are contradictory--we're told at first that something is important, and later that it's not trustworthy--but the real problem is that we're being told outright at all, that even irony and contradiction are not allowed to play out, but must be explained and noted.

A lot of this self-awareness takes the form of self-deprecation, as in this line:
"Throughout the story, X communicates to the reader "between the lines" in a rather pathetic manner. Such self-consciousness has clearly corrupted his writing."

But self-deprecation is only effective when it is honest, when it acts as a genuine reveal of character, not just a sarcastic defense mechanism--a schoolyard dodge, 'if I say it first, then they can't make fun of me for it'.

Self-awareness needs to be more than just a pose, like a teenage rebellion, where it becomes an excuse, a way of distancing one's self from the reader, and from judgment--'Yeah, I know--Did you think I didn't know that? Everyone knows that.' It becomes a crutch to fall back on, an attempt to regain some semblance of control, all these explanations of just what the reader is supposed to be getting out of this.

Certainly, VanderMeer set himself a great task, and there's something admirable in that, but it isn't one of those great, inspirational 'troubled experiments', like Moby Dick or A Storm of Wings--in large part because Harrison already achieved in Viriconium everything that VanderMeer can't seem to do here. However, Harrison always lets the story stand on its own, he gives no excuses, nor does he spell out what we're supposed to take away from the book.

It's a lesson all artists need to learn: if you're going to be brave and create something, then be brave all the way through. Don't stop halfway to explain yourself. When you hand off your work for others to enjoy, don't include qualifiers and excuses--even though the urge to do so will be strong. You have to let the work stand on its own, and if you aren't willing to do that, then don't take on a monumental task, because the meddling will ruin it.

And VanderMeer set a monumental task for himself--there are a lot of moving pieces here, and keeping them all spinning is a master's work. The structure itself is obsessed with metafiction, all of these 'in-world' documents that are supposed to come together and produce a greater whole: a scientific article about squid, a series of art critiques, a pamphlet about the history of the city, an asylum doctor's interview, letters, a story written in secret code, &c.

Yet, I rarely found that these metafiction elements were well-written enough to merit inclusion--they certainly paled in comparison to his pure fiction. Indeed, there seemed to be a sense that they were all extended jokes--in An Early History of Ambergris, the fact that there were more footnotes than actual text, and the same in King Squid, except this time it was the bibliography that was longer than the story, or in The Release of Belacqua , mocking the fact that art critics can often only guess at their subjects' motivations.

But all of these jokes relied on their great length, the need for the author to just keep at them, to keep extending them ever longer, which only actually works if the joke is funny enough in the first place to survive such a stretching on the rack. What marks great lengthy jokes is the author's ability to keep raising the stakes, to keep making things more ridiculous and involved, to drop the other shoe--and then another--until it's all piled on top of itself, redoubling its own absurd premise. Instead of this, VanderMeer keeps the same pace throughout, merely adding on more of the same, and so the last line holds no more humor than the first--indeed, rather less by way of attrition.

The central story that connects all of these it The Strange Case of X, which literalizes the fiction process, writing the author into the story, making him the god who creates the world, but is also trapped by it, by his own obsessive imagination. Again, it's an old trick--I found it trite when Grant Morrison first pulled it out (not to mention the third, fourth, and fifth times), and I still think it's something rather difficult to do well. It forms a sort of 'answer' to Harrison's conclusion to his series, 'A Young Man's Journey to Viriconium', but again lacks the necessary subtlety and conviction.

Comparing Sartor Resartus to A Brief History of Ambergris, for example, a great deal of what makes the former successful is that our crazed academic takes himself so seriously even as he spouts the most absurd nonsense--indeed, we almost feel we believe him. In contrast, VanderMeer's is constantly telling us how funny and silly he is, and as such, he feels less wonderfully absurd and more 'look at me being wacky'.

I got the impression that The Strange Case of X was supposed to be a sort of surprising twist story, forcing us to question our assumptions about the nature of reality versus fantasy. However, right from the beginning, I assumed the twist--I’m not saying I cleverly figured it out, but that it never occurred to me that the story might end any other way. It would be as if a story ended with the revelation ‘he was a dog all along!’, when earlier stories were all from the point of view of dogs, and the story in question kept mentioning leashes and chew toys. Perhaps if it were read in isolation, it would work better, but when collected alongside other Ambergris stories, it's hard to imagine reading it any other way.

Then there's the fact that these metafictions tend to fall into worldbuilding cliches, where the author literally sits you down and dumps a huge pile of exposition on the reader, not only explaining the history of the city, but also giving comments along the way suggesting how you should feel about it. It struck me that one of the only times I've seen this done well was in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , and that's only because it was clever and witty enough that the worldbuilding didn't matter, it was completely secondary--indeed, if you took any one of those entries completely out of context, it would still be amusing by itself.

Susanna Clarke managed to do the same thing with her footnotes, and it's a lesson all authors should learn: always be putting on a show, make your words do double duty. Don't just be self-aware, be self-aware and funny, don't just be funny, be funny and thoughtful, don't just be thoughtful, be thoughtful and exciting.

Otherwise, it becomes the equivalent of Gene Wolfe's New Sun books, where there's supposed to be this huge, complex, interesting meta-story behind the real story, as long as you reread it and carefully put together all the pieces--but why would anyone want to reread a dull story over and over in hopes that it might become interesting? It becomes the equivalent of the epic fantasy standby: 'You have to keep reading until the fifth book, that's when it gets good. A good author ensures that the story is intriguing on both the small and large scale.

Also like Wolfe (and Banks again), there are some very cliche problems with character and point-of-view. Just like in bad Steampunk (meaning most of it), where authors completely forget the 'punk' and make all of their characters upper class and educated, VanderMeer doesn't give us any views from oppressed or minority classes. It's all about the difficulty of being a smart, middle-class white male artist (or scientist).

Women are largely absent, except as objects of desire. We're not allowed into their heads, to see their point-of-view, we aren't asked to explore their struggles or concerns. Even as objects of desire, there's never any relationship or intimacy, just distant, creepy obsession. Indeed, the only genuine, long-term romance represented in the book is between two men.

The title character of Dradin, In Love is typical of such, being an obsessive creep who fantasizes about a woman he's never spoken to. Dradin is an ass of a character, but this isn’t the worst crime--many such asses in fiction offer amusing, insightful depictions, even as we roll our eyes at their foolishness or cringe at their cruelty. We laugh and even sympathize with figures like Flashman or Steerpike. Dradin’s true sin is that he’s both unpleasant and dull--I don’t mean merely unassuming, like Chekhov or Kafka’s quotidian characters, but flat.

However, there is an implication that this is all on purpose, that he's meant to be this way--but of course, doing it on purpose isn't a justification, any more than being 'self-aware' is--so, why is he this way, is it a parody of such characters in fantasy? The problem is a lack of change: Dradin starts off an obsessive creep, and only grows increasingly obsessive and creepy as the story goes on, demonstrating it twice and three times over.

Perhaps it's written for the reader who will, at first, assume that Dradin is a genuinely nice guy, and who will then be shocked and appalled at his later behavior? If so, then all VanderMeer has really done is write a fable for the naive--what does this present for a reader who dislikes him from the start? Not very much, I'm afraid, which is why it's important to make sure that a story works on multiple levels, such that it can interest various audiences at the same time.

There is a point, in any piece of art, when to add a further stroke would worsen it, making it too busy, destroying the careful balance of fluidity and gesture. Every artist knows this point exists, but for most of us, we only recognize it once it has passed, once we have already ruined it, and it becomes abundantly clear that we should have stopped a moment sooner.

Yet, there is a need in us to keep going, to keep carving away at our work--especially when we see the errors in it, which we always do. Once you've passed that point of no return, where each additional mark just muddles it a little bit more, it can be almost impossible to stop, to salvage something from it. Much easier to start over--and usually, to make the same mistake again.

An embarrassment of wealth becomes a wealth of embarrassment so easily when we overreach ourselves, when we are striving for something but cannot shake the feeling that the thing we desire is too far beyond us even to approximate it. VanderMeer's work is full of reaching, and full of self-corrections, of tiny modifications in the course--because he is steering by the bow of his ship, not by the horizon.

Markers are easy to imitate, which is why VanderMeer can write
"On the thrice chime, a clerk ... came forward"

And if you weren't paying attention, if you didn't quite know what to look for, it might seem somehow interesting to mistake an adjective for an adverb--to use an odd word without really understanding the definition. What a shameful, whence the thrice badly book failure the aspiringly author.
Profile Image for Ian "Marvin" Graye.
874 reviews2,263 followers
March 22, 2015
Some Fantastic Metafiction

“City of Saints and Madmen” (“COSAM”) not only explores a world of New Weird author’s Jeff VanderMeer’s creation, it gives a detailed insight into the method of his creativity.

It’s not just a fantasy novel, but a highly accessible and rewarding exercise in metafiction.

It’s a composite of works: short stories or perhaps novellas, fictional notes, fragments of drafts, reminders, observations, word sketches, drawings, illustrations, doodles, dream diary entries, the history of the fantastic city Ambergris, a family history of the Hoegbottons, a scientific monograph about giant freshwater squid, art criticism, little magazine articles, records of disputes between rival historians and critics, transcripts of witness statements, psychiatric reports, coded messages, correspondence, even a glossary, and footnotes.

In a word, artifacts. Or arty facts. Two words.

Pictures at an Exhibition

VanderMeer is an exhibitionist, he is so incredibly, no, fantastically, talented, and these bits and pieces are the pictures at his exhibition.

The most analogous experience I have had is “Nick Cave: The Exhibition”, a collection of personal possessions, notebooks, drawings, posters, photos, objet d’art and ephemera.



While the apparent object of both artists was something else (a novel, song lyrics and music), both collections or anthologies add up to a snapshot or a mirror image of the soul of the artist, which in turn is a mirror turned around and focused on our souls.

In the works of Jeff VanderMeer and Nick Cave, you can find almost anything you need to know about your self.

That is, if your world can accommodate a little Philip K. Dick or Edgar Allan Poe or Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace in it.

The Juxtaposition of the Elements

"What remains obscure, even to those of us who knew him, is how and why [Martin] Lake managed the extraordinary transformation from pleasing but facile collages and acrylics, to the luminous oils—both fantastical and dark, moody and playful—that would come to define both the artist and Ambergris."

“COSAM” is an assemblage or collage of disparate elements that VanderMeer works into something luminous.

For me, a simple juxtaposition is not enough. You don’t sit two or more characters together, unless you expect some chemical reaction to occur and your expectation is satisfied.

This is the Way the World is Built

I tend to allow an author like David Mitchell to get away with loose or almost thread-bare connections.

VanderMeer doesn’t need the same sense of forgiveness.

His elements are all more overtly connected to the theme of Ambergris, a city that doesn’t seem to be as developed as the modern world, but still doesn’t seem to resemble any city from the past, apart from aspects of the Byzantine Empire.

This is VanderMeer’s way of world-building.

Clearly, there are different styles, subject matter and perspectives. However, what is important is the accretion of detail. We readers can synthesise it into an understanding of his world.

In a sense, what is important here is not so much a hero and their journey, but the comprehension of a world, and perhaps the manner in which and extent to which it consists of saints and madmen.

From Prosaic to Mosaic

For me, therefore, it's like a painting or mosaic that takes shape by the construction of discrete sections on the canvas or board, without needing to have a chronological order or a narrative imposed over the subject matter.

This, too, is the defence against any argument that there is too much or that it is sloppy or excessive or repetitive.

I'm prepared to let VanderMeer paint his painting or assemble his mosaic the way he wants to.

Also, I'll let him choose the sheer physical size of his canvas or board. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to building worlds.

The Illumination of the Psyche

"Lake ’s tones are, as Venturi has noted, ‘resonant rather than bright, and the light contained in them is not so much a physical as a psychological illumination.’"

Within the fantasy genre, the novel shines a light on desire, love, imagination and fantasy.

It originated one night in 1993, when VanderMeer awoke envisaging a scene from the novel with “super-heated intensity”, as if in “a vision or waking dream”.

It was like he had a key that could open a locked door and “found an entire fantastical city in my head”.

While he draws the cityscape with precision, he also draws its emotional landscape with expressionist accuracy.

I Desire Your Love

At the heart of the scene in VanderMeer’s head was a man’s desire for a woman he sees sitting in a window, the basis of what became the first story, “Dravid in Love”.

It explores just how much desire, lust and love occur within the head of the Subject, regardless of the existence, knowledge, awareness, consent or encouragement of the Object.

Somebody who convinces themselves that they are in love can build a whole fantasy world around their love, without any real participation by the second character.

In a sense, desire and lust can make us imagine that we are in love.

In VanderMeer’s eyes, desire influences and distorts our perception. It can result in an illusion or self-delusion.

Our gaze can turn us into madmen.

In contrast, two of the characters with whom VanderMeer seems to have the greatest sympathy are blind, possibly because they cannot physically see in order to be deluded.

Perhaps they (and only they) are the saints.

I Interpret You

VanderMeer extends the concept to interpretation in "The Transformation of Martin Lake", a story that consists of art criticism, on the one hand, where the critic draws inferences about the motivation of the artist, while, on the other hand, a separate narrative strand reveals what their true motivation was.

Just as a man can sit in front of a woman in a window and draw particular inferences, a critic can sit in front of an art work and believe that they understand its origin, intent or effect.

They can then perpetuate their interpretation as definitive, regardless of its truth.

Again, VanderMeer suggests that we should not rely on just one view to establish the truth of the matter.

Perhaps, there can be no truth in a story told by or in the first person, unless it is verified by the second person.

We are, all of us, unreliable narrators.

My Darkness and I

These tendencies occur within relatively normal behavior, but they can also constitute either neurotic or psychotic behavior.

The problem is accentuated when the person is an artist.

Their role is to build a credible world where these forces and tensions are at play.

In VanderMeer’s words:

"...the world has to be metaphorically and metaphysically interesting, which means you can’t be too consistent. Everything can’t be tidy and pat, and it should be in flux—it should be, in a way, alive. Above all else, to be interesting, a fantastical city should be a reflection of the writer’s obsessions and subconscious impulses."

Writers have to objectify their obsessions and impulses, and then give life to them.

In the process, they shift them from inside to outside their self. They create an Other.

Then they begin to struggle and wrestle with the Other.

One of VanderMeer’s characters describes the Other as “the Darkness”, which then takes on the form of a manta ray.

We now have a situation where a person, an artist must effectively struggle with a lethal marine life form.

I Wouldn’t Miss This for Squids

VanderMeer doesn’t just use manta rays, elsewhere the antagonists are squids and mushrooms.

Whatever their form, they represent the aggressive, threatening Other, the Alien, the Aggressor, the part of our Selves that threatens to undermine and destroy us.

In VanderMeer's imagined world, perhaps the Id is a Squid.

A Disremembrance of Things Past

So with all this delusion and darkness, bad and traumatic things can and do happen.

If we do bad things, we will feel guilt or remorse, and we will want to relieve or assuage our guilt.

We don’t always deal with it by penance, sometimes we deny our actions and attempt to obliterate them from our memory.

However, often, the subconscious works against us by resurrecting our guilt in our dreams and nightmares.

"The Strange Case of X"

Most of the above subject matter draws attention to the self-consciousness and sub-consciousness of everyday living.

VanderMeer explores the implications for writing (and, by extension, reading) in the most metafictional story, "The Strange Case of X".

Whether or not “X” is an alter ego, he has written works with the same titles as components of COSAM.

He also seems to have committed a crime for which he has been charged and exonerated by a jury, which believed his “story”. Now he is being interviewed to establish his sanity.

His defence is that the alleged crime happened only in Ambergris, a fictitious world, not in “real life”.

This world took over his life for many years, as readers demanded more and more material about Ambergris, but now he has ceased to believe in it.

X tries to escape the burden and the guilt by denial.

Imagine My Amazement

Paradoxically, VanderMeer perpetuates the fiction by writing the story, a story within a story, a disturbing spiral from which the reader eventually has to extract their own mind.

This is easier said than done. Thus, the novel starts with a gaze and ends with a maze.

There is no escape. You have to return to or remain in the world of Ambergris. It is our cage. And we can either sing or scream.

Whatever, VanderMeer has created a novel and a world that are "both fantastical and dark, moody and playful".

I can relate to that.

"’All writers write,’ he whispered. ‘All writers edit,’ he muttered. ‘All writers have a little darkness in them,’ he sobbed. ‘All writers must sometimes destroy their creations,’ he shouted.

"But only one writer has a darkness that cannot be destroyed, he thought to himself as he clutched his wife to him and kissed her and sought comfort in her, for she was the most precious thing in his life and he was afraid—afraid of loss, afraid of the darkness, and, most of all, afraid of himself."

"I will not believe in hallucinations."

The Ways of Love

When if
Some times
The ways
Of love
Do not
Seem just,
It's oft
They are
Just the
Of some
On the
Of your
In a
Up above,
In some
Of your
But still
Not shared
Or real
Or true.

The Blindness of Irene

I see your beauty.
I'm blessed you, though blind, can feel
Mine with your fingers.


Died Pretty - "Ambergris"


Jesus And Mary Chain - "Darklands"


"I'm going to the darklands
To talk in rhyme
With my chaotic soul
As sure as life means nothing
And all things end in nothing
And heaven I think
Is too close to hell
I want to move, I want to go
I want to go
Oh something won't let me
Go to the place
Where the darklands are
And I awake from dreams
To a scary world of screams
And heaven I think
Is too close to hell."

Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Saint Huck"


Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Lie Down Here & Be My Girl"


Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds - "Where Do We Go Now But Nowhere?"


"I remember a girl so bold and so bright
Loose-limbed and laughing and brazen and bare
Sits gnawing her knuckles in the chemical light
O where do we go now but nowhere

You come for me now with a cake that you've made
Ravaged avenger with a clip in your hair
Full of glass and bleach and my old razorblades
O where do we go now but nowhere

O wake up, my love, my lover wake up
O wake up, my love, my lover wake up"
Profile Image for Traveller.
228 reviews719 followers
October 2, 2013

Jeff VanderMeer is a self-proclaimed "New-Weird" writer.

The New Weird genre as we see it in Vandermeer, started off with the works of authors such as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
A more modern example of another New-Weird author, would be China Miéville.

Most people may know the first two authors mentioned as horror writers, and it is true that Vandermeer's stories contain a flavor of horror, though many of them are too humorous to be classed as horror. The stories also contain a whiff of the strange and absurd, and quite a bit of tongue-in cheek dark humor. Essentially, it is imaginative post-modernist fiction. The stories include a strong sense of self-referentiality. (For instance, some of them pose as history books or diaries.)

This book is a collection of linked stories, possible to read as standalones, but all taking place in and around VanderMeer's invented city, Ambergris.

Following are my impressions as I read the stories:

"Dradin, In Love"
I'm intrigued as to where the city is set, or shall I say, which real-world location it is based on.

Initially, I thought the Amazon jungle, but now, after mention of an Occidental woman and an old man defecating in the street, I'm starting to think India. (Perhaps Bombay/Mumbai?) It could also be in the Fidji islands where VanderMeer spent his childhood. Possibly and probably all of them and at the same time, none of them?

Phew, what a harrowing story. The author leaves you wondering about quite a few issues; about the nature of love, and the nature of reality, for starters. After a fairly standard start, the protagonist's background is subtly woven in to introduce elements of madness, and the sense of madness/surrealism gradually grows. The denouement is a perfect mix of surreal violence, realization and shock.

This is exactly the kind of literature that I love - I love being left with material that I turn around in my mind, looking at it first from this angle, then from that, without it ever completely yielding all of its mysteries.

"An Early History of Ambergris"
was reminiscent to me of a fabulous postmodern allusion to the conquest of Tenochtitlan by Cortez.

It is written in the form of excerpts from dairies and history books, complete with "clashes of opinion by historians" to add to the fun. Also, the mushroom plot deepens.
Thoroughly enjoyable.

"The Transformation of Martin Lake"
These stories are weird.. (well, they are New-weird)
They all start off pretty bland and unexciting, and then suddenly, the atmosphere totally changes - especially the Dradin and the Lake stories so far. Suddenly they become surreal and in the case of the abovementioned story, it's a breathless, totally out there mixture of horror and weirdness.

In fact, it becomes decidedly creepy.

The story ends up being a reflection, like The Strange Case of X, on aspects of what it means to be a creative artist; in this case it deals mainly with creative jealousy amongst artists, and also with how an artists' most profound work often springs from a well of deep darkness, - often of despair, in the artists' life.

I was reminded quite profoundly of Mozart. I should mention that I'm not fond of Mozart's 'lighter' earlier works. Pretty as a picture as they may be, but there is for me, no soul, no real depth in them. However, I actually get goose bumps just thinking of his Requiem.

Drinking deeply from the cup of loss, and grappling with the face of death, transformed Mozart, as far as I can see, into a man who could produce the profound experience that his Requiem is.

And so it was for Martin Lake.

"The Strange Case of X"
Hahaha. The Strange Case of X has a brilliant twist! Well done, Mr Vandermeer. You have my sympathy...

Some excellent pieces of meta-fiction here.

VanderMeer does give a whole lot of subtle clues that tickles at the back of your brain, but that you don't always quite follow through with, until you get to the reveal. There you get an 'aha' Eureka! experience quite similar to what you tend to get while reading Gene Wolfe.

With both Wolfe and Vandermeer, you often find yourself going; "Hmm, I thought this was odd, or that rang a bell, but I didn't quite see it at the time. I see now that the author had been teasing me all along."

From the appendix: "If you should ever again visit our humble
outpost of insanity, ..." (a letter written from an insane asylum) LOL. I love VanderMeer's black sense of humor. XD

One thing is for certain- Jeff VanderMeer is a tease.

The rest of the stories not specifically mentioned in this review, tend to be written in a whimsical, playful tone, and serve to expand the world of Ambergris. A lot of them flesh out the setting that the earlier stories play out in.

Prepare to see squid and mushrooms in a completely new light. Once you've visited the world of Ambergris, squid and mushrooms will acquire a VanderMeerian flavor that you'll never quite manage to rid them of.

Features that I would remove a star or a half-star for: Some of the stories, especially An Early History of Ambergris, which I found slightly boring in places, are a bit too rambling and the author becomes a bit too indulgent with his "historian" conceit.

Disclaimer: The review is mainly based on the first four stories:
"Dradin, In Love"
"An Early History of Ambergris"
"The Transformation of Martin Lake"
"The Strange Case of X" ; all of which appear in the first edition of the book.
A further edition expands on the first one and a lot of fun stories were added to it.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,099 followers
March 23, 2018
I would love to say this novel defies description, but it doesn't. :) In fact, thanks to the existence of a number of really quite fabulous works that came after it, some from VanderMeer's own hand, we can now properly place this work in its proper context.

New Weird.

Yeah, yeah, but WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

In this case? I'd call this a tightly interwoven series of stories and faux academic papers surrounding the fictional city of Abergris. Expect strange mushrooms that range from hallucinogenic to graphically horrific to a high-grade fever dream of a Lovecraftian occultist.

And let's not forget the squids. Or the squid cults. Or how we have a large portion of the most respected library in Ambergris devoted to books on the squids that range from naturalists to fairy tales to squid cults to conspiracy theories hinting that some of the most troublesome parts of a few popular squid plays were, in fact, written by a certain cephalopod IN HIS OWN INK.

Sound strange? It isn't. Not really. Each tale is a low-grade fever dream couched heavily in the normal, the regular, the banal. Things only get odd at a slow rate, kinda like being boiled alive and not understanding this fact until it is far too late. Of course, that makes us lobsters. Not squid. My metaphor breaks down.

I was honestly driven to real anxiousness and amorphous horror by many of these related tales. Much like his more well-known works in Area X and Borne, he has a wonderful command of the scientific method, an evocative sense of awe, and a well-developed manner of timing his prose to pack a heavy horror punch.

For those of you who are familiar with the general modern fantasy (often SF) field, the closest writers to this wonderful novel would happen to be Christopher Priest's Dream Archipelago sequence. Alan Moore's Jerusalem is also wonderfully close to it. But I won't fail to add, to a lesser degree, China Mieville. :)

New Weird is a genre-bender in all senses, adding heavy fake academics, amazing depth, horror sensibilities, passion, and a dose of THINGS THAT CAN'T BE RIGHT. But are, of course, in the tale. Most of the time, these aspects flabbergast the characters as much as it does us. It's charming and endlessly diverting. :)

Do I recommend?

Oh, yes. For anyone who likes a solid challenge and doesn't mind having their minds blown. Absolutely. :)
Profile Image for Gabrielle.
1,016 reviews1,179 followers
November 24, 2020
Jeff VanderMeer is a very clever, very talented guy. But I feel that sometimes, he lets his cleverness get in the way of a good story.

“City of Saints and Madmen” is his first visit to the city of Ambergris; a city unlike anything I can think of in the modern world, that plays mix and match with references of geographical locations and eras that should have logically never met each other, and yet blend together artfully in this strange place. The book is constructed as a collection of stories of wildly different formats. From traditional novella to diary entry, historical pamphlets and detailed bibliography, we get to know Ambergris little by little, as a strange and experimental literary tapestry is woven in front of our eyes.

It was the first time I’d ever seen world-building structured that way. I felt like someone who came upon the relics of a long-lost civilization and had to put disparate evidence together in order to understand the sort of place this once was. It was challenging, and very demanding – which was a bit more than I had bargained for the first time I read it, and I confess I found the exercise ponderous at the time. Nevertheless, my interest was piqued: I knew I had to revisit this strange book at some point. The city was a fascinating place, the idea of sentient mushrooms was so intriguing, and the writing was just way too good to ignore. Also, squids!

What you need to know when you crack open this book is that there is no exposition: you are thrown in the deep end and you sink or swim. The themes of madness (as implied by the title) and the nature of reality are omnipresent through every vignette and you need to pay attention to details because every story is intricately linked to the other, with hints of things to come (or things that have passed) dropped tantalizingly here and there. It can easily make one dizzy, especially with the very creepy, ominous atmosphere that permeates many of the stories.

“Dradin In Love” is a novella about love at first sight gone off the rails in the midst of a city-wide festival, during which citizens reach an uncontrollable frenzy that often ends in spilled blood and ripped limbs. The protagonist is adrift on unfamiliar streets, and has a shaky relationship to sanity; things spiral out of control and it is impossible to say when exactly the poor man takes the plunge into madness. I found this story elegant, unsettling and tinted with just enough eroticism (albeit super weird eroticism) to go “Oh, my!”. Dradin’s old-fashioned ideas and propriety are in such stark contrast to the almost savage debauchery of the city that you can’t help feeling sorry for him while snickering as he blunders his way to the enigmatic lady at the window.

“The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris” is just what the title promises, but VanderMeer’s humor definitely shines in this particular story. Writing this booklet as celebrated historian Duncan Shriek (with whom adventurous readers can get more familiar in “Shriek: An Afterword” https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), he explores the settlement of the site now known as the city of Ambergris by pirate John Manzikert I, how he purged the existing city of its mushroom-dwellers and founded a dynasty. But Shriek is a cantankerous man, and doesn’t hesitate to point out inconsistencies in the historical record and judge the immoral actions of the founders of his city. His text is liberally peppered with footnotes about the events and the characters, which makes this story look like a demented academic document. It also introduces the readers to Ambergris’ troubling history, a history soaked – not quite in blood, but in violent colonialism and conflict with the city’s original inhabitants: the mushroom people eventually known as the Gray Caps.

"The Transformation of Martin Lake" intertwines two narratives: excerpts of Janice Shriek's essay entitled "A Short Overview of the Art of Martin Lake and his Invitation to a Beheading", and a third-person omniscient narration of a few days in the life of Martin Lake, and the events that transformed him from decent but unoriginal artist, to the iconic and celebrated Ambergrisian painter known for having best captured the city in his works. The dual narratives both complement and contradict each other as the grotesque cause of Lake's stylistic evolution is slowly revealed.

"The Strange Case of X" is a wonderfully meta story, about a doctor working at the Ambergris asylum. He is charged with a patient who suffers from the troubling delusion that Ambergris doesn't exist, that he created it, imagined it down to its most trivial detail and that he is in fact a writer from a city named Chicago. Clearly, VanderMeer had a lot of fun writing this one, but it does raise the intriguing question of what happens when a writer gets lost in his own fictional universe.

What follows this story is almost 300 pages of appendix, composed of documents “found” by the attending doctor who treated the aforementioned X. They are short stories, monographs of various kinds and are laid out in different fonts, with beautiful engravings and illustrations. I won’t summarize all of them, but they are entertaining and creative.

As I revisited this collection of stories, I found myself enjoying VanderMeer’s lush prose even more than the first time. There’s something sensual and enveloping about the way he writes, and this strangely seductive vibe is a powerful hook. The bits and pieces of the history of Ambergris scattered through the stories are surprising, disturbing and quite simply fascinating. Even long after you put the book down, those squalid streets will still be around the corners of your mind.

But where the book loses steam is in the gigantic appendix section, which is basically the last half of the edition I have. I think that while the post-modernist experiment can be fun – probably more for Jeff than for the reader – it doesn’t really add to the stories or the world-building. I admire him for pushing the meticulousness that far, but frankly, I just ended-up skimming that section, especially the bibliography and glossary. This makes rating the book tricky, because if you just focus on the first 300 pages, I would be tempted to give it 5 stars. But the rest of the book is more like 2 or 3… Having said that, the full experience of “City of Saints and Madmen” requires at least a few glimpses into the appendix, so that leaves me with mixed feelings about the entire book. I settled on 4 stars just because it really is a brilliant work of art even if it’s a hard one to digest.

Surrealist, post-modern, baroque, darkly funny and bizarre. VanderMeer can only be accused of one thing: trying a bit too hard. I still prefer China Mieville’s work to his, but you have to appreciate the mad inventiveness and gorgeous prose. For the very patient New Weird fans and uber nerds who like elaborate puzzles.
Profile Image for Helen 2.0.
404 reviews912 followers
June 16, 2016
You know Mary Bennett in Pride & Prejudice, who tries too hard to come up with profound or abstract things to say? I was reminded of her while reading VanderMeer's writing style in City of Saints and Madmen. I didn't read the whole book - I have to admit I was too lazy to read the massive appendix.

My favorite story within CoSaM was the Early History of Ambergris. The historian who writes/narrates the pamphlet (Duncan Shriek) added footnotes almost every other line; the footnotes take up nearly as much space as the history itself. In the footnotes Shriek comments on the events with Terry Pratchett-style wit, dropping jokes, absurdist bits of stories, and sarcasm-laden personal opinions. I enjoyed his footnotes immensely; best part of the whole book, if you ask me.

As for the rest of the stories, they were creative enough but I was unimpressed. The thing that fascinated me was the world of Ambergris and beyond. Individual characters were less interesting to follow.
Profile Image for Brad.
Author 2 books1,710 followers
May 8, 2009
*WARNING: This is not really a review, but City of Saints and Madmen requires something else entirely, and there may be a spoiler or two, but considering the book's form I doubt that will matter.*

Dradin, In Love
As Dradin experiences the rain, I am straining with the brightness of our first sunny day reflecting off the silky pages of City of Saints and Madmen, and I am struck by the sensuality of the experience a mere forty pages into VanderMeer’s opus. The weight of the book is comfortable in my hand, and it seems to reflect the weightiness of what VanderMeer is trying to achieve. And those pages. I don’t think I have ever felt a book whose pages made me want to open the covers just to run my fingers over the paper. It is the Bantam Trade Paperback Spectra Edition for any who’d like to feel what I am talking about.

If this book becomes any more sensory, I don’t know if I will be able to handle it.


So Dradin is as mad as his Mother, maybe madder (assuming she was really mad, of course).

It just struck me that the murderousness of Ambergris during The Festival of the Freshwater Squid, might not have happened at all. What if Dradin had a full psychotic break after he killed Dvorak? What if the murderousness of the Festival was in his mind? What if the woman he loved wasn’t a mannequin at all? What if he killed his love himself so that he could keep her with him, dismembering her as he did his sweaty Priestess from the jungle?

Even if all of these questions are answered in the negative, the story of Dradin, In Love is a frighteningly cool kick off to the City of Saints and Madmen. The murderousness of the Festival reminded me of a spookier, chillier version of the classic Star Trek episode, The Return of the Archons. It makes me wonder if the bloodletting of the Festival is convention. Do people attending the Festival expect it to be so sanguinary? If so, many of them enter the streets to sacrifice themselves, so what does that tell us about Ambergris and the people who inhabit its streets?

Dradin’s naiveté is positively shocking if he is not psychotic. To trust Dvorak, to expect aid from Cadimon, to wander unwittingly and boldly through the streets, to pass through the Mushroom Dwellers (Gray Caps), to fall in love with a mannequin, even to expect her to join him at The Drunken Boat, Dradin’s innocence seems almost impossible, but it does make him sympathetic despite his flaws. Of course, innocence and psychosis are often complimentary states. Many psychotics have an odd innocence about them, almost a weird light of unassailable optimism.

Whether the entire story is an expression of Dradin’s psychosis or Dradin is merely psychotic within a crazy story, madness, as the title of VanderMeer’s book suggests, is an integral part of Ambergris. I can’t wait to move on to the History.

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris

Fictional histories of fictional worlds always throw me straight into Baudrillard mode, and Duncan Shriek’s overindulgence in footnotes sounds so real that the model seems better than the real could ever be. As fictional historians go, moreover, Shriek is one of the most likable characters I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. His commentary is far more interesting than the Manzikerts’ creation of Ambergris on the backs of their genocidal destruction of the Mushroom Dwellers and Cinsorium, although the story of early Ambergris is damn good too.

But before I leave behind what seems an intentional use of hyperreality on VanderMeer’s part I must mention the succession of Manzikerts, the early Festivals of the Fresh Water Squid, and the Saint of Saints. All very hyperreal and all very cool.

Shriek is playful, witty and fun; his most fun footnote indulgence is the war of words he seems to have going with his more extreme competitors: the state supporting, conservative Sabon and the state criticizing, “functional anarchist” Lacond.

The Lacond-Sabon-Shriek tension is the actual story in The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris. I wish these characters were hidden in some University nearby so that I could take them all out to the pub, order up a pitcher and let them fight out their debate over Tonsure’s true identity or the role of Sophia in her husband’s and son’s decision making processes.


Voss Bender is everywhere; he is a sort of Mozart-like figure, or a Shakespearean figure; the popular culture that ties all of Ambergris, and possibly all the city states, together.

Later still...

The Silence. I didn’t find it as chilling as I was, perhaps, supposed to, but I found the telling of the Silence compelling. VanderMeer as Shriek has a voice that rivals the best historians in our supposedly real world, and I find myself not wanting this history nor Shriek’s commentary to end.

The Transformation of Martin Lake

Turn down the lights. Climb into bed.

1 tbsp Poe
1/2 tsp Pynchon
1/2 tsp Peake
1 tsp Wilkin
A pinch Baudrillard
1 whole VanderMeer
1 cup grated Martin Lake
1/4 cup thinly sliced Voss Bender
1 coddled Janice Shriek

Mix ingredients well. Read in the dark of night. Allow your imagination to embrace terror. Expect any trust you have ever had in historians to be shaken to its core. Cook until done. Serves many.

The Strange Case of X

I started out not liking this chapter. First I was annoyed, then I was angry, but then I was captivated, and I kept going until the wee hours until I finished it and loved it. I could say more, but I don’t want to for fear of revealing too much of myself.


Letter and Notes: Straight away, I see that this story is not truly a tale of Ambergris and Ambergris alone, but a tale of how a city comes into existence. Is it imagined into existence? Does it exist before it is imagined? Does the imagining of a city already in existence overcome the real city, is it replaced by its “operational double,” as Baudrillard would have it? In order my answers would be: Yes; Yes; Yes. So it becomes a story of Ambergris, but of an hyperreal Ambergris made hyperreal by X (or VanderMeer, if you will), therefore it is also a story of X.

Ambergris + X = X + Ambergris = X = Ambergris.

And I am expecting the appendix to only deepen that relationship.

The Release of Bellacqua: To be a cognizant mind, an enlivened soul, then to be told you have only existed as a story, as another mind/soul’s written tale, then to be written away. Back into the nothingness from whence we all come and go. It is not just a tragic story for Bellacqua, but a sad "what if" for anyone, for everyone. What if X is God? What if we are nothing but God’s characters in a story It chooses to tell? Is that more comforting than being an independent, living being with only oblivion to look forward to?

King Squid: Every step is making me feel mad, as if the entirety of City of Saints and Madmen is a manifestation of madness, which is, of course, no stretch at all. Utter paranoia.

The Hoegbotton Family History & The Cage: So much detail. Everything about this book is in the details. The title of the book the Cage appears in is Details of a Tyrant & Other Stories, but we're only told by being observant of the header, the fonts, the pseudo-intertextuality, the hints of a unifying voice in the repetition of “X” and “pathetic” and “sour,” these are all powerful details that offer countless possibilities for interpretation. Are they clues? Are they red herrings? Are they intentional? Are they mere quirks of the real life VanderMeer? Do they mean anything? Is the hand in the Cage from the sweaty priestess? Did the cage belong to Dradin? Does it matter? I’m not sure that I care if any of this means anything. I know that I am loving my complete immersion in the waters of Ambergris, and I think that may be all that matters.

In the Hours After Death: Is Nicholas Sporlender the Ambergris manifestation of X? Possibly. But that doesn’t go far in helping me discern the meaning of In the Hours After Death. This is the only story where I feel cut adrift. They hyperreal elements are undeniable, coming as they do from a literary magazine, but what of the walking dead, the adrift soul? Perhaps that is what it means. I wonder if it will come clearer next time I read City of Saints and Madmen.

The Man Who Had No Eyes: This was mind-blowingly compelling. I stayed up until 3:30 am decoding the last paragraph. The act itself, the writing, as X tells us, is a bringing into existence and a prolonging of what already exists. The writer as god, and all of us as the writer. That X/VanderMeer implicates us in his own creation, in this his greatest moment of genius. The readers are the writers are the madmen are the saints are the gods of Ambergris and Earth.

The Exchange: Suddenly the bonds that separate the worlds are slipping, flipping and flapping in the wind like a skein of canvas giving glimpses of the opposing sides that slip between worlds like the rippling of cloth in the elements. Sporlender is X is VanderMeer (who exists in both worlds) + Verden is Schaller (who also exists in both worlds) and this slippage continues right into Learning to Leave the Flesh, wherein Ambergris is infected by Florida and the rest of our reality. The Victorian, the Rosetta Stone, ‘50s b-grade vegetable movies, cars (referred to for the first time in the language we would use), The Gainseville Sun and The Independent Florida Alligator all seep into Ambergris, and our world and the city seem closer to one than they could possibly have been with only X/VanderMeer(Sporlender?) stuck in the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute. I am exhausted and drained by this book. I must come back to Ambergris and dip into the puzzle all over again.

The Ambergris Glossary: Back to the lovably cantankerous Duncan Shriek and a nice burst of humour to finish off this mind-numbing ride of world creation. The glossary also marks the first time an author’s “building” work has felt appropriate for publication. Many authors add work like this to the story itself, thereby destroying any hope of pace and readability, but VanderMeer’s decision to shift the background work to a glossary eradicates the dangers this sort of generative work could do to the stories, and then makes it an enjoyable cool-down as you pull out of Ambergris and go back to the mundane worlds of other authors. Then A Note on Fonts gives us one last “taste” of sensuality, filling us with the flavours of word shapes. I’ll be keeping my eyes in my palms and hope to make a VanderMeer sighting/citing, although I’m not sure Bantam Trade Paperback Spectra Edition Books will really care. Or maybe they will.
Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,275 reviews228 followers
May 29, 2016
DNF at 26%

I can appreciate the obvious beauty of the writing but there is absolutely nothing making me want to keep turning the page. I find the characters repulsive, the setting baroque and the writing overly concerned with it's own "trickiness".
Profile Image for David Katzman.
Author 3 books472 followers
December 30, 2013
If Proust had been a hella Dungeon Master and then dropped all the monsters and sword play…you might end up with something like City of Saints and Madmen.

For several years now, I’ve almost exclusively read books as research for my second novel. With few exceptions (when the books were short), I’ve been committed to that focus religiously. (As religiously as an atheist-buddhist-jew can be.) Not all the books I’ve read were chosen for concrete research, per se—such as, “I’ve invented a character who survived a botched lobotomy so I’m going to read books by Ann Coulter”—but sometimes I choose books to get a taste of stylistic influences that might be complementary. In this case, City of Saints and Madmen gave me the impression of a sensuous style and fantastical weirdness. Tastes great, more filling.

I was right. It’s a pretty sweet book, wonderfully written in most ways, yet it still let me down as a whole for two particular reasons that are my own bias. First to the good: As I implied by the Proust reference, his writing ability is outstanding. His sentences never achieve the labyrinthine subliminity of Proust, but he certainly has an impressive and natural command of language, grammar and sentence structure that aspires to the Proustian. The quality is erudite, rich and evocative. He also switches personas adeptly from one first-person narrator to another.

This book is a fantasy novel, of a sort, but with none of the standard trapping of the genre. It’s features a quite convincing parallel earth much like our own set roughly in a Victorian era in a city of chaos, religion, violence and commerce. But Vandermeer tweaks and twists just a few elements of our reality to spawn a déjà-vu paradigm—it’s like our world…and yet not. A few elements that push it into the fantasy realm include: a race of mushroom-eaters who live underground, speak an unknown language, and may have disappeared an entire city of people in one single day without leaving a trace; a tremendous variety of giant and possibly intelligent squid; some odd animal life; very aggressive fungi; and the potential to travel between our reality and the one of Ambergris, the city that this book centers around.

Despite the lack of elves, beholders, magic swords, trolls, frost giants and 20-sided dice, a Dungeon-Master personality comes through for me via the absolutely meticulous history and detail that make up Vandermeer’s world of Ambergris. I was both a D&D player and Dungeon Master, and I recall spending days on end drawing convoluted maps and shaping entire continents, inventing names of rivers, towns, countries, kings and queens, cities and, of course, dungeons. Mapping out every square inch, filling it with monsters and allies, traps and treasure. Ambergris is much the same. Vandermeer works quite hard to give the impression (and successfully at that) that he is channeling an alternate reality through this novel. In fact, one story within COSAM features a character in a madhouse who claims to be a writer from Chicago writing about a city called Ambergris.

Anywho, this brings me to my first minor bias against this book. Several of the stories herein end too patly. Like the one I just described. It’s the twist ending, the clever payoff, the surprise you didn’t see coming (or did, because it wasn’t quite that well disguised.) Yes, there is a great deal of ambiguity, mystery and unknown in COSAM, but there are also a few too many stories that tie up neatly like a riddle rather than like reality. Nothing is ever so tidy. So that bothered me.

And the second point that I didn’t like—that I’ve vaguely alluded to previously—is that this book is in fact a collection of short novellas rather than a single novel. I am just not a fan of short stories; they never have the meat to satisfy me. This book is close to being the exception to the rule, but I would have preferred an interweaving long narrative about Ambergris. Instead, COSAM presents a somewhat chaotic (like the city itself) series of varied scenarios featuring Ambergris. The first, and longest, story features a missionary just returned to Ambergris from the jungle where he failed at his mission. He is suffering a sort of post-traumatic stress syndrome and jungle poisoning. The second novella is a detailed telling of the history of Ambergris (as best as it can be known) from the perspective of a crotchety old historian who doubts he really knows what happened. The third features the tale of a mediocre artist in Ambergris invited to a “beheading” that leaves him forever altered. The fourth novella is the aforementioned writer in the psyche-ward. Ps. The creative impulse and writing itself are two of the major themes explored herein.

The book concludes with an Appendix almost as long as all the previous novellas that features twelve different sections ranging from an amateur squidologists research on squids to a glossary of Ambergrisian people, places and things. All written from unique points of view. Although I admire and appreciate the connected quality of these stories, it’s not what I generally seek out. (And if you don’t think the glossary was written by someone who was once a personal friend of E. Gary Gygax, then you don’t know your saving throw from your +2 long sword.)

Despite my personal qualms, I do highly recommend this work. The writing is outstanding and the tone ranges from disturbing to hilarious and everything in between. Weird and freakish. Flip through it and see what you think. Definitely recommended for fans of literary speculative fiction (as they say.)
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
3,004 reviews10.6k followers
February 4, 2008
I was in a New Weird mood about a month ago and this is one of the books I read. I liked most of the stories in it and enjoyed the use of framed narration. I'd rank it somewhere between Perdido Street Station and The Scar.
Profile Image for Uzma Ali.
101 reviews1,418 followers
January 2, 2023
DNF. Entirely too dense! So no rating 😊
Profile Image for Para (wanderer).
379 reviews199 followers
November 17, 2018
I delight in books that piss on convention and pull it off. The plotless, the strange, the experimental. City of Saints and Madmen makes all that I read so far sound perfectly ordinary and reasonable. Of all the books I’ve ever read it is, by far, the oddest and the most experimental of them all. It very slightly resembles The Gray House in the sense of slowly discovering a world while reading (and that was the recommendation that made me pick it up), its use of unreliable narrator, and surrealism, but only a bit, in the most general of senses. The structure and the setting itself are entirely different.

Either way, I fucking loved it.

The window looked down on the city proper, which lay inside the cupped hands of a valley veined with tributaries of the Moth. It was there that ordinary people slept and dreamt not of jungles and humidity and the lust that fed and starved men’s hearts, but of quiet walks under the stars and milk-fat kittens and the gentle hum of wind on wooden porches.

The best words to describe it would be “delightfully insane.” Because it is. Utterly batshit and utterly fascinating.

There is no coherent narrative. The book is composed from several parts, ranging from relatively ordinary (well…by the standards of this book) novellas and short stories, to a history of the city written by a cranky old historian with an overwhelming love of footnotes, an interview/study of a madman who thinks that he made Ambergris up and really lives in Chicago, letters and notes, a 90-page scientific monograph on squid complete with an extensive bibliography (my favourite part, it’s hilarious), a pamphlet, and more. It’s far more of a mosaic portrait of the city of Ambergris than a straightforward story.

(I wish I had the mind for proper literary analysis because there’s probably a lot to dig up thematically too, but alas, I do not.)

And what a city it is. Through the book, we learn about its history, its customs, and its inhabitants. We learn of the mysterious gray cap people, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, a few famous artists and composers. There are references to mushrooms and squid scattered throughout. There’s a nice sense of atmosphere, too. I appreciate it when writers refer to in-universe books, plays, works of art, historical events – it makes a setting feel much more lived in and less like a set piece for the story.

As some sections are written in character, the writing style and the structure vary. Dradin, In Love is descriptive and slightly flowery. The historian is snarky and prone to digression in footnotes. The Transformation of Martin Lake alternates between the story of the painter and the criticism of his paintings, with all the assumptions the critic makes. The Strange Case of X is a conversation between the writer and his characters (or is it?). The squidologist often misuses words or makes new ones up. The whole book is rife with unreliable narrator and general messing with the reader. It sounds like it could easily end up a pretentious, unreadable mess, but it’s executed flawlessly. No part of it should ever be skipped or skimmed, not the footnotes, not even the glossary (it’s a riot) and certainly not the few pages on the fonts used. True, it didn’t read fast thanks to its fragmented nature – still, it’s surreal, vivid, and not without a sense of humour.

Enjoyment: 4.5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: squid lovers, mushroom enthusiasts, fans of strange, non-linear, experimental stuff and unique settings
Not recommended to: those looking for a straightforward story

More reviews on my blog, To Other Worlds.
Profile Image for Ruby  Tombstone Lives!.
338 reviews411 followers
January 25, 2014
The Tombstone Guide to City of Saints & Madmen
The book lay on the weathered coffee table, pages spilling loosely from its tattered, well-worn binding, a suggestion of mould dotting the cardboard of the inside jacket, close to the spine. The following elements were (barely) contained within:

• A beautifully written fantasy/horror novel, complete with intricate world-building, playful (indeed masterful), use of the English language, inexorable creeping dread and a strong sense of whimsy. Comparisons to Lovecraft, Mieville, Peake, Moorcock, Pratchett or Gaiman would not be unfounded.

• A highly sophisticated work of post-modern metafiction which uses a range of fictional documents (psychiatric reports, magazine articles, family histories, letters, essays, bibliographies etc) to construct a multidimensional collage, full of hundreds of fully cross-referenced stories-within-stories. Use of the word, “literary”, would not be unfounded, however meaningless that term may be.

• An insidious web of conspiracy and secret societies, reaching out and attaching itself to inhabitants of the real world and, inevitably, engulfing the reader. Reference to Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, in describing this aspect, would be unavoidable.

• A living creature which has the power to transform and to be transformed by the act of being read. VanderMeer is a character himself, but as he says, "It's not a one-to-one relationship”. He is all of the characters, therefore would not also the reader be an integral part of the story, changing the story, perhaps changed by the story…?

• A small purple mushroom with a white stem.

A Note About The Cover Design: This reader would have preferred to see a beautifully lavish cover designed by one of the several wonderful artists whose works graced the interior pages of City of Saints & Madmen. In my humble opinion, the paperback cover design is not suited to either the feel of the story or the style(s) of the other artwork. It is definitely not suited to having enthusiastic readers flick back and forth between various appendices without the book rapidly disintegrating in their hands.

Dr. R

Profile Image for Ivan.
434 reviews284 followers
July 23, 2016
I was thinking to give it 5 stars.Ambergris is fascinating place, one that is very dark and puzzling but at the end I had to make distinction.This book is great but I have given 5 stars to Perdido street station and City of stairs ( 2 books that also have unique world where city is main star of the show) and I felt this book is more than slightly bellow them and I think it should show in rating.
Profile Image for Scott Rhee.
1,884 reviews73 followers
December 22, 2017
O Ambergris, city of a thousand mushrooms, land of rape and money, home of the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, the town that never attenuates temporally nor adequately, a vision of pure hallucinogenic wonders, the city of saints and madmen!

In all the world, Ambergris stands as a beacon of hope and mystical wonder; built on the ruins of an ancient conquered paradise by the first of the great Cappan John Manzikerts, whose lineage would rule Ambergris for generations.

Yes, the history of Ambergris is seeped in tragedy and blood and potentially carnivorous fungi, but it remains the cultural, religious, and political hub of the mostly-discovered world, the global headquarters of the one true religion, Truffidism, as well as a scientific haven for squidologists world-wide (many of whom are escaping persecution and ostracism from other realms, perhaps justly deserved).

And yet, a true and accurate historical account has never truly been attempted, perhaps owing to the virtually impossible and uncapturable nature of the city itself. Any author of any literary merit, in the humble opinion of this reviewer, has simply never succeeded in capturing, pinning down, dissecting, chewing on, digesting, suffering gastrointestinal distress from, and regurgitating violently the majesty and glory of Ambergris.

Until now.

Recently, the book publishing subsidiary of Hoegbotton & Sons released a glorious new chapbook by the much-vaunted but controversial author Jeff Vandermeer, cleverly (and perhaps ironically, although this reviewer wonders) entitled “City of Saints and Madmen”; a book which incorporates the author’s divers selection of short stories, essays, and miscellania regarding our fair and occasionally fragrant city.

Included in the collection is the adorably perverse short story “Draden, In Love”, the maddeningly sinful and infuriatingly irreverent but lovable story “The Transformation of Martin Lake”, and the over-hyped but pleasant-enough “King Squid: Being a Brief Monograph Explaining Both the Phenomena of the Giant Freshwater Squid and of Related Squid Folklore (Including the Festival of the Freshwater Squid), While Also Containing Much by Way of Personal Experience, in Four Parts---Part I describing What the Squid Is Not, Part II What the Squid Is, Part III Expounding with Brevity on the Peculiarities of Squid Lore, and Part IV Divulging a Accurate Scientific Theory that Explains a number of Otherwise Puzzling things that Have Long Preyed Upon the Mind of this Writer (And a Vision)---and Concluding with a Bibliography (Intermittently Annotated)”.

(Also included---for reasons that absolutely confound and elude this reviewer---is the obnoxiously horrendous and viciously cruel “Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of the City of Ambergris”. Complete drivel and a disgusting cold sore on an otherwise unblemished complexion of literary beauty. In my opinion.)

Much like the bawdy and vainglorious melodramatic operas of Voss Bender and the haunting and ethereal paintings of Martin Lake, Vandermeer’s beautiful prose shines a light into the dark recesses of our fair city, and the author proves to be the quintessential chronicler of our times.

Strange, considering the ominous shadow weighing over the mysterious Vandermeer.

Weeks ago (this reviewer discovered), strange rumors abounded through the Ambergrisan literati that an unusual new figure arrived on the literary scene in a most unusual way. Vandermeer, a patient at the Voss Bender Memorial Mental Institute, has been entertaining a team of psychiatrists and staff of the institution.

This reviewer, in pursuit of truth and fact rather than gossip and rumor, thoroughly investigated the strange case of Vandermeer, who (it is true) simply arrived one night, “out of the blue”, as they say, in a most untoward section of the city and was brought to the Voss Bender Institute at the behest of the Ambergrisian police.

For weeks now, the doctors in charge of this strange person (dubbed Mr. X by staff) have been regaled by Vandermeer’s psychotic ramblings, including outrageous claims that Ambergris exists solely as a figment of his imagination, that he comes from a world that exists on a “parallel dimension” to ours (such strange words, too!), lives in a world of flying buses he calls “airplanes”, boxes that provide entertaining moving pictures he calls “teevee”, large screens that show living paintings called “car tunes” drawn by a man named Walt Disney, and that he is originally from a city (larger in size and population than Ambergris, if such a thing were possible) with the unlikely name of Chicago.

Such lunacy is, of course, tragic and sad in a personage of such raw literary talent, but it is an ancient axiom that genius and madness are the most loving of bedmates.

Nevertheless and in any case, despite the toys-in-the-attic cuckoo, Vandermeer’s book would be a wonderful and necessary addition to any bibliophile’s collection of rarities.

Rush now to Borges Bookstore, as these special edition chapbooks (printed on the finest dried Purple Bullheaded Squid flesh and with a special ink made from Southern River Moth fungus) are available only in limited quantities and for a limited time at Borges or any of the fine Hogebotton & Sons establishments now and until the upcoming Festival of the Freshwater Squid. Just a gentle reminder to not be caught out on the streets after dark during the violence of the festival.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
444 reviews199 followers
May 21, 2023
DNF 35%. Stopped about 15 pages from the end of the first book. It's all a bit too much for me - VanderMeer's febrile imagination makes for a reading experience not unlike getting stuck in a Hieronymous Bosch painting or maybe an overgrown jungle.

Profile Image for Sandi.
510 reviews279 followers
April 7, 2009
GoodReads definition of two stars is "it was ok". That pretty much sums up what I thought of "City of Saints and Madmen" by Jeff VanderMeer. Some of the stories were really good, like "The Cage", "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and "The Strange Case of X". If all the stories had been that caliber, I might have given this book four stars. Unfortunately, VanderMeer gets too into his conceit of the book being the story of the city of Ambergris. The section that was an early history of Ambergris was clever at first with the fictional historian inserting his own opinions into voluminous footnotes, but it went on too long and the cleverness wore thin. The section about the king squid was similarly long and overdone. The typesetting and artwork were very good, but reminded me of my scrapbooks. In fact, the whole book seemed to be more of a scrapbook than an anthology or cohesive narrative.
Profile Image for Michael.
274 reviews779 followers
February 11, 2010
Jeff VanderMeer's first book of Ambergris is a complex, humorous, awesome, inspired, boring, redundant, over-foot-notey, groundbreaking, self-absorbed and very pretty book. I can't quite call it a novel, nor a book of short stories: it's more of a patchwork, novellas and fake historical pamphlets and short stories and other bizarro little experiments that succeed at times with flying colors. At other times, they crash and burn.

City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of tales set in Ambergris, a fantastic world populated with more madmen than saints. The city was "settled," in a manner of speaking, when pilgrims arrived in a beautiful city inhabited by tall, nonviolent mushroom people. Long story short, the settlers made up something to take offense at, and killed off all the mushroom people, taking the city for their own. Since then, the citizens of Ambergris has been under the threat of the mushroom people who have seemingly come from nowhere and begun to inhabit the city again, cleaning up the city at night and occasionally robbing or killing people. But, mushroom people aren't the only threat to the city's cityzens . . . dangerous dwarfs, murderous masked men, ethereal evils, frightening festivals and other, uh, bad stuff is just waiting around the corner to create carnage.

"Dradin, In Love" is the opening novella, unless you count the dizzying Michael Moorcock introduction that . . . well . . . looks very nice on the page. "Dradin" is a good strong opening, setting the tone of the city of Ambergris and introducing you to some surprising cultural aspects of the city. The story ends very strongly, and has some memorable imagery. You are also left, in the end, unsure at what point in the story Dradin went mad, or if he was mad from the beginning. It's one of those stories you keep thinking about.

Then, we have "An Early History of Ambergris," a historical pamphlet written by a snarky historian. This lays out the mysterious-yet-hilarious history of the city, with fun illustrations, footnotes, references to other (nonexistant) authors, and whatnot. Another very strong piece, and well placed. It gives the reader a chance to recover from the darkness of "Dradin."

On to "The Transformation of Martin Lake." This is every bit as mysterious as the earlier stories, and is probably the most suspenseful part of the book. I liked the story a lot, although the ending was a bit of a whimper, and not so much of a bang. I believe that, throughout the story, the mystery works very well. However, when the mystery is still around in its entirety after the story concludes, the reader is left wanting more resolution.

"The Strange Case of Mr. X" is the last of the novellas from the original version of the book. This one is VERY funny, very weird, and also provides a much needed tonal change from "Martin Lake." It ends on a very strong note, and I was still very enthralled after finishing this novella.

Then, we begin our journey through the appendix. This is over half the length of the book, and doesn't include a consistent page numbering system. This is intentional, since the appendix is a series of writings that had been in the possession of Mr. X. These opuses included some goodies, like "The Cage" and "The Exchange." And, this section of the book shows VanderMeer doing some really interesting stuff.

F'rinstance: "The Exchange" purports to be a story by two authors from Ambergris, and the center of the pages show the pages from their story. Below their pages are paragraphs written by a separate author, telling a different story about the authors themselves. These two stories interweave effectively. Another experiment that works less well, but is interesting in theory, is "King Squid," a pamphlet about Ambergris's native King Squids, including their biology, activities, etc. Through the footnotes and the bibliography, the author's occasional comments about his personal life tell a story separate from the sometimes not enthralling squid stuff. This story seemed more interesting in theory than execution.

Some versions of this book also include an encoded story. The version I read had the story already decoded. This story, "The Man Who Had No Eyes," was interesting, but if I'd spent half a saturday decoding the fucker, I would've been shitaaay. I would've expected something at least as good as "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner."

So, as far as the appendix goes, I feel VanderMeer's ambitions slightly overreached his execution. However, I love experiments, and it's not that anything in here is BAD. It's just highly uneven, with all of the best stuff at the front. I can't say for sure that this would be better if the organization were changed; after all, if you view the appendix as something optional, something for the real VanderMeer fans, then you have an incredibly strong set of novellas, and a bunch of freebie weirdnesses to read through whenever you get curious enough. Of course, I plowed through the whole thing, reading every single footnote, reading the whole bibliography to "King Squid," and then I even thought about reading the glossary. (That's when I decided it was time to curb my dorkdom. I didn't read the glossary.) But, I'm also someone who refuses to turn off CDs before the secret song plays, even if I have to wait nine minutes for the secret song to start, and all it is is Kurt Kobain screaming loudly over a bunch of feedback for like an hour. (If you're a Blind Melon fan, you should know that you can rewind from the beginning of CD versions of the album "Soup" and hear a lame 15-second acoustic thing.) Err....back on topic: if one is to view the appendix as a part of the book and not just an appendix, this would be a 3-star book. If one is to view this as a book with an optional appendix, I would say the book itself is a 4, perhaps a 4.5. So, I'll settle on a rating of 4.

I would strongly recommend this for anyone into New Weird authors like China Mieville and . . . well . . . all those other New Weird authors out there I haven't read yet. I also think this would be a good book for anyone into more literary fiction interested in exploring the fantasy/SF genres. But, if you don't like dark fiction, you probably aren't gonna like Ambergris. The stories, although sometimes funny, are consistently bleak.

Profile Image for Peggy.
267 reviews65 followers
August 14, 2007
City Of Saints and Madmen is made up of a series of stories connected by their setting. There’s a depth to Ambergris, a heft that only comes from a fully-realized world. Middle-Earth has it, as does Arrakis: a sense that the craziest things make perfect sense because you’re so grounded in the world the author has created.

Before we reach the "beautiful cruelty" of the book’s end, we’ve gotten a tour of various parts of the city, we’ve met the mysterious original inhabitants of Ambergris, the gray caps, we’ve taken a peek at religion in the city, and we’ve seen the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, which is beyond anything you can imagine. We’ve met cantankerous academics, slumming in tour guide footnotes. We’ve been treated to a scientific monograph where a whole ‘nother story emerges if you read all of the notes. We’ve seen a story entirely in code. And we’ve met X, an author with a history very like VanderMeer’s, who is being held in a psychiatric ward because he thinks he has actually seen the fantasy land (called Ambergris) that he writes about (the ending is a delightfully vicious little thing).

The detail in the stories is lush and rich and entirely believable, and amazingly, it doesn’t get in the way of the main action.

Together, the stories add up to more than the sum of their parts. The specific and abundant details combined with the poetic and dreamlike images paint a compelling picture. It’s very easy fall into the same trap as the ubiquitous "X"; how can you not believe in Ambergris? I’ve physically visited cities that have not had as much of an impact as VanderMeer’s stellar creation, and memories of Ambergris have been creeping into my dreams. VanderMeer may well be the best fantasist working today. He slips past your defenses and seeds the hidden recesses of your imagination with spores that fruit in unexpected ways
Profile Image for Oscar.
1,971 reviews492 followers
May 20, 2022
Cuentos que parecen ensayos y ensayos que parecen cuentos, todos ambientados en la ficticia ciudad de Ambergris. Y me han gustado bastante, algunos diría que son excepcionales, como el segundo relato, narrado a modo de guía turística por el historiador Duncan Shriek. Hay datos “históricos” mezclados con cierto humor, añadiendo elementos new weird, misterio y algo de terror. Cuenta la fundación de Ambergris y haciendo hincapié en el Silencio, donde tuvieron lugar hechos realmente macabros. Otro buen relato es el relacionado con el Rey Calamar, que de nuevo parece un ensayo sobre un elemento importante de Ambergris. Hay más buenas historias, como la primera, ‘Dradin enamorado’, donde se nos narra las aventuras y desventuras de este misionero que acaba de llegar de nuevo a Ambergris después de un tiempo en la selva, y que de repente ve a una joven en la ventana de un tercer piso de Hoegbotton & Sons, y aquí empieza su obsesión por conocerla.

Muy buen libro de VanderMeer, imaginativo y extraño.
Profile Image for Charlie George.
169 reviews24 followers
May 31, 2020
It was exceptionally good, but words fail me to describe why or how. The praise on the jacket and front 3 pages say it much better than I could, and is all entirely warranted and apropos. It knocked me flat, which is why I'm off my game and this is the sorriest review ever.

Ambergris is a bewildering, heady, terrifying city of... well you guessed it, saints and madmen. And squid and fungus. The rich blend of humor, fantasy, and horror really worked, just electrifying. Many of the stories, some 100 pages long, others only one or two paragraphs, were some of the most macabre, satisfying and fascinating horror I've yet encountered.
Profile Image for Amy (Other Amy).
454 reviews89 followers
Shelved as 'reviewed-apart'
February 11, 2016
The River Moth was wide and deep, the traveler in his boat a speck of speck of light in the darkness. Five crewmen manned the boat, which ferried visitors to the legendary city of Ambergris. The traveler knelt near the prow, staring toward his destination. Such a smell came across the water from the city. It excited him for reasons he did no[LIBRARY STICKER]mell of water-stained paper, an invisible watermark all-encom[LIBRARY STICKER]was the smell of wet clothing left to molder. It was the smell o[LIBRARY STICKER] transformed to mud, dissolved to silt. It made the traveler see the river, the water, as an intricate conspirator, infiltrating marsh and bracken, woodland and rock, with rivulets of itself. It made him think of smell as something physical, like a gate, a fence, a bridge. In listening to the water slap the sides of the boat and in absorbing the smell that told him the water permeated everything, had soaked through, even into his head, the traveler began to think he just might, some day, be able to say he understood water... And ahead: Ambergris, huddled and indistinct. Here and there, a spire or dome rose out of the gloom, glittering with light. Yet the city seemed at times to flare and flicker like a hissing candle. Across the water that separated boat from shore came bobbing out of the dark: an overturned canoe, a shoe green with algae, a pink scarf, a torn piece of net with a fish still breathing inside of it, caught by the gills... Somehow, staring down at these entrails for oracles, the traveler understood that he would know the water more intimately before he reached the city.
-from the cover of this edition

I have gone a bit over the deep end for this book, I know. I requested this edition from the library to find out whether the vignette on the dust jacket was included in later editions. (The answer appears to be no, but I have the latest edition from Tor on order to confirm.) The other special item from the earlier editions is that "The Man Who Had No Eyes" is completely encrypted in this version, and when I get a moment, I intend to decrypt it to find out where the specific words are embedded in the book, as VanderMeer believes this changes the reading experience. (He has also vowed to never do another encrypted story, thank goodness.)

(Personal to the Aurora Public Libray: )
Profile Image for Matthew Gatheringwater.
156 reviews1 follower
August 29, 2008
I once read that a group of mystery writers including Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, and G.K. Chesterton formed a detection club and swore to abide by a code of authorial ethics to ensure fair play for their readers. This seems like such a good idea that I wish writers in other genres would consider forming a similar club and that Jeff VanderMeer, in particular, would be a member.

Many reviews of this book mention its "puzzle-like" quality, but if this book is a puzzle, it is one in which the solution is too whimsical to be appreciated by this reader. I suppose VanderMeer's writing style may be intended to induce a kind of disorientation in the reader by mixing hints of reality with fantasy. In actuality, it has mostly induced frustration in me. Often, the hints of reality seem silly and coy. Using Borges as a place-name, for example, seems to be a solicitation for a flattering comparison to which this book is not worthy.

Finally, what can be said about mushroom dwellers? Unless someone decides to write a horror story featuring Hobbits, it is hard to imagine a fictional malevolent race harder to take seriously. They live in dark caves, they cultivate fungi, why they even look like mushrooms with their long skinny necks and wide-brimmed hats. Oohh, scary! I'll never again look at a salad bar without shuddering.
Profile Image for agata.
104 reviews41 followers
February 1, 2017
A difficult one.

Worldbuilding: excellent, honestly. I could walk you through Ambergris right now.
Language and style: ah, what a wonder.

I'm not really sure what I enjoyed more. The writing or the world.

Storytelling: Well... You know, a bright new world is a good thing and painting that world with all those magnificent words an even better one. But there has to be a story somewhere in a book of several hundred pages.
There has to be at least one likeable person, flawed like everyone of us mortals, who makes really stupid decisions that lead to something interesting which then may or may not be the plot of the aforementioned story.

After aprox half of the book that story was nowhere to be found. I hope to find it in one of the later Ambergris works.
Profile Image for Brooke.
538 reviews296 followers
May 4, 2009
I'm struggling with how to think about this book. 3 stars is inadequate to express how I felt about many of the individual stories contained in the collection. By themselves, they were very good - atmospheric, creepy, well-written, well-imagined, etc.

As a whole however, I'm not sure it worked for me. It's supposed to be a collection of stories about the city of Ambergris. It's a city filled with mysterious mushroom people, artists, a festival that involves squids and slaughter, and mystery. About halfway through, the collection shifts its focus slightly to a particular troubled denizen of the city, and that slight shift leaves me puzzled about WHO or WHAT this collection is about.

I also noticed that most of the short stories are attributed to fictional authors who reside in the city. This shifts things again - did any of the events in the stories actually take place in this fictional world?

I liked the writing enough to read more by VanderMeer, but I'm still struggling with just how I felt about this one.
Profile Image for Amy (Other Amy).
454 reviews89 followers
March 22, 2016
This 700 page book took me a day and a half to read. The penultimate story in this novel was the last thing I read last night and the first thing I thought about when I woke up this morning. Driving home from errands, I found myself thinking about it again, along with thoughts of David Foster Wallace, and tearing up. This review might take awhile. In the meantime, this book is awesome, and you should probably read it.
Profile Image for Sarah Cavar.
Author 11 books170 followers
January 6, 2023
This early VanderMeer is just fantastic –– labyrinthine and metatextual, yet actually concerned with plot in a way that often seems lacking in Borges and Calvino. You won't know what's going on 100% of the time, but the vibes and index will carry you through. I'm excited to see what the next two volumes will bring; this is a world I don't want to leave.
Profile Image for Metaphorosis.
753 reviews55 followers
August 10, 2013
I ordered this book purely on the basis of reviews. I'd never heard of Jeff VanderMeer, but the book sounded quirky, unconventional, and interesting. On two out of three, I definitely got my money's worth.

This is essentially a fully immersive, highly self-referential collection of stories about the city Ambergris, the Freshwater Squid in the river that passes by, the mushroom people that are its original inhabitants, and the humans that try to make the city their own. There are glossaries, bibliographies, and all sorts of other bits, each with a story to tell. Some of the stories appear to be previously published (it's a little hard to tell from the credits).

Probably the most accurate thing I can say about the book is that it's clever. In fact, relentlessly clever, and not always in a good way. It starts off well enough, with a fairly straightforward story ("Dradin in Love") introducing the gritty and complex city. The writing is good, and there are all sorts of in-jokes (I presume I missed many). I found the story dragged a bit, though the ending was strong.

For me, part of the problem with "Dradin", and with the rest of the book, is that I just wasn't very interested in Ambergris. VanderMeer has clearly had a lot of fun fleshing out backstory for the city and many of its characters, but it didn't really grab me. What was intriguing were the mushroom people and their mysterious history. Unfortunately, while they form an important backdrop to the story, VanderMeer never really digs into them in a very fulfilling way. Instead, the story is about the humans and their version of the city, which I found far less compelling.

This book has a lot of unusual pieces, and I read everything - including the glossary and the 40 page bibliography (for a 50 page story). I found a lot of humor (and hidden stories). The only thing I didn't do was to decode the last paragraph of one story. By that point, I just didn't care very much. The jokes and references had long before begun to seem not only tired, but self-indulgent. I like writers who experiment, but the truth is that a lot of experiments fail. Sadly, I had the fear that they would even before I finished "Dradin".

My ultimate impression was that I was reading a cult novel without being a member of the cult. I was willing to become one, but the literature on offer just didn't make me want to convert. In the end, I recognize VanderMeer as a talented, intelligent writer, but I really can't recommend this book to anyone who's not already a fan - at least of VanderMeer, if not of Ambergris.
Profile Image for Chris.
341 reviews973 followers
February 9, 2008
This book was.... weird. Sort of.

Imagine a city, the city of Ambergris. An old city, with a strange and bloody history. Imagine the people who populate that city - an idolized composer, a dilettante politician, a mad writer, a steadfast merchant and so forth. Imagine a city built on genocide and violence. And squid.

Such a city would have a thousand, no, ten thousand stories to tell. It's as rich a fantasy city as Iest, or Tar Valon or Ankh-Morpork, and any writer could spend his life writing stories in it.

That's not... exactly what Vandermeer does.

Reading this book is kind of like going into the Ambergris main library and picking books at random off the shelves. Though them - texts on history, art criticism, and squidology, vanity press literary magazines, letters and typed notes, we learn - second-hand - all about the city of Ambergris and its secrets.

We learn about the horrible fungus and the silent retribution of the Gray Caps whose nation was violated to build the city. We learn about the King Squid, the top of the food chain in the River Moth, who may be trying to kill us all. We learn a lot of things, but very rarely through the standard style of narrative.

Vandermeer has put together a very odd collection of fiction here, and has chosen a startlingly interesting way of presenting the city that he obviously loves. Or hates. I don't think even he is sure....
Profile Image for Rob.
Author 2 books383 followers
March 14, 2023
If given the space of 50 words, Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen would be a tough book to describe. I shall attempt to do so anyway:

Part novel, part anthology; part traditional narrative, part "found document"; part vaguely alternate history fantasy, part subliminal existential horror; City of Saints and Madmen is a queer beast that starts out innocuously enough but soon morphs into... well, not quite House of Leaves -- but that is the closest comparison.

...at least, "closest comparison" w/r/t/ format -- the interleaving of formats and voices/narratives that otherwise appear to be sequestered from one another. It's tedious and maddening and very rewarding.
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