City of Saints and Madmen
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.