The ZONE genre worldwide books movies
the science fiction
fantasy horror &
mystery website
 
 
home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email

City Of Saints And Madmen
Jeff Vandermeer
Tor paperback £6.99

review by Patrick Hudson

For the last couple of decades, fantasy has laboured under the triple burden of Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien and the dorky group mind that constitutes the Dungeons & Dragons phenomena. It is the heavy metal of genre fiction with an aesthetic that embraces most of the heavy metal virtues. The meandering style of fantasy fiction finds its musical equivalent in the epic prog-rock style, where battle scenes evoke furious guitar solos and poetry and songs do the same for tedious drum solos. Like rock, fantasy is best in short sharp doses but multi-book series with individual volumes of six or seven hundred pages make embarking on a fantasy series a lifestyle choice rather than a mere read. A traditional trilogy can easily encompass a million (admittedly unchallenging) words, but even this limit has been well and truly breached with long-running series like the 'Wheel of Time' and the Shanara-foodaddy - 11 and 20, respectively, and still going strong.

Familiar rant out of the way, though, this isn't all there is to the genre, even if it does dominate the bookshops. The potential for potent irrationality has not been completely abandoned, and still surfaces from time to time. Right now, we seem to be in the middle of one of those occasional fertile periods. Often associated with British writers such as China Miéville and Steph Swainston - who take their lead from Mervyn Peake and Alasdair Gray and M. John Harrison, the 'new weird' as it has been called, has also been percolating on the other side of the Atlantic in the writing of Jeff Vandemeer. City Of Saints And Madmen collects Vandemeer's stories about Ambergris, an imagined city, which seems to share a postcode with Lanark, Gormenghast, New Corbuzon and Viriconium.

Ambergris sits on a harbour surrounded by jungles, an ancient city discovered by a fleet of ships fleeing persecution in their homeland. The settlers slaughtered the locals - the primitive, enigmatic, possibly fungal Grey Caps - and settled into the existing buildings. Under the rule of successive business-like Cappans it has thrived, but there lingers something queer and profane about the place. There is no explicit magic in Ambergris, nor any wizards or priestesses, but it abounds with odd beliefs, disturbing festivities and mysterious entities such as the Grey Caps and possibly sentient squid. Vandemeer portrays Ambergris in a series of vignettes - stories, histories, autobiographical sketches, learned treatises on ancient traditions, including extensive bibliographies and a glossary. King Squid is an academic disquisition on the giant squid that form a vital part of Ambergris' fauna, including a bibliography that is as much part of the narrative as the main text and the The Ambergris Glossary in uses its informational format to cast new light on many stories and characters that have gone before.

Under the guise of a collection of short stories sharing a setting, he brings Ambergris alive through a series of snapshots rather than a sustained narrow novelistic view, which gives the setting great depth. With no central character or overarching plot, it becomes an evocation of its only consistent character - the city of Ambergris itself. The explicit references to Borges are fair warning that there are mind games coming up, and City Of Saints And Madmen overflows with clever and witty inventiveness. Vandemeer fractures the characterisation and narrative between the various stories, returning again and again to themes of creativity, transformation and madness, embodied in recurring motifs such as plague, impossible love affairs, the violent festivals and the murderous subterranean mushroom people that infest the city.

A crucial part of Ambergris' impact is the clever use of illustration, design, layout and typography. Vandemeer has worked with artists and designers to a distinct ambience for each story that is as vital to the book's success as the prose itself. Stories such as In The Hours After Death, The Man Who Had No Eyes and Sporlender, Verden & The Exchange are presented as facsimiles of real artefacts, and owe part of their effect to the graphic aspects of the presentation. Small details such as the illustrated title pages, embellished borders around titles and the intricate marks filling section breaks combine to give the Ambergris a consistent tone.

The net effect is hypnotic and immersive, far more convincing and immediate than the cod histories or flimsy pretend folklore of the run-of-mill Tolkien knock-off. The twisted perspectives and haunted atmosphere linger in your mind. You may find yourself dreaming of walking down Albemuth Avenue, browsing at the Borges Bookshop and the dusty showrooms of Hoegbotton & Sons before drinking at the Ruby Throated Calf and taking in a Voss Bender opera in the evening. If you do, I'll see you there - the first round's on you.
City of Saints and Madmen

read our review of -
Shriek: An Afterword
by Jeff Vandermeer



Please support this
website - buy stuff
using these links:
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Send it
W.H. Smith

home  articles  profiles  interviews  essays  books  movies  competitions  guidelines  issues  links  archives  contributors  email
copyright © 2001 - 2006 Pigasus Press