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Wrong Train, Right Time ([personal profile] wrongtrainrighttime) wrote2017-05-10 06:48 pm

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer, Jeff. City of Saints and Madmen. Tor Books, 2004. London.

City of Saints and Madmen is a collection of novellas and short stories, all of which are set in and revolve around the strange, dark, occasionally surreal and fungus-overrun city of Ambergris.

I originally encountered Jeff VanderMeer through his Southern Reach trilogy, which was dark and weird and, above all, incredibly distinctive. That interested me, and I wanted to see what else he did with this distinctive voice. Then I saw that this specific book had received many accolades for its weird urban setting from other writers of weird fiction whose work I admired -- so I decided to seek out this book out.

Based on all of this I had built up quite a bit of expectation about what it would be like, but what I forgot is that much of it is from earlier in VanderMeer's career. So the book was rather different from what I was expecting based on the Southern Reach books.

The primary surprise was that I thought it would get weirder much faster. Quite a bit of this book was enjoyable, especially towards the later pieces, but some of it was just...way more mundane than I expected. Which made for a weird reading experience as I kept waiting for the weird to start.

Okay. Let's take some of these parts one by one.

"Dradin, In Love"
Moves very slowly, also kind of boring. Blah blah men fall in love with objects shaped like women because they can't distinguish between real women and objects blah blah. They're sad because they just feel, like, so bad about the things they've done. Way more interesting as a throwaway line about an in-Ambergris artifact.

"The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris"
Now we're getting interesting! I love the mysteriousness of the gray caps. I love Duncan Shriek's voice and how it permeates the text and especially the footnotes. It's a very fun read and I quite enjoyed the various footnote arguments between historians of Shriek's acquaintance.

"The Transformation of Martin Lake"
I really, really liked this one. The sheer weirdness of it all, that isn't necessarily magical but just strange and inexplicable. I love how so much of it is focused on Lake's art, the dry criticism of it, and the tension between what we see happening in the flashbacks in Lake's POV and what we get from the critics' struggle to interpret and understand Lake's esoteric imagery. The note about Merriweather hurt my heart. One of my favorites from the collection.

"The Strange Case of X"
Normally, I quite enjoy meta stuff, but this didn't really click with me... I like the idea of Ambergris existing Beyond the real world and slowly devouring those who brush up against it in the dark hours of creation... But the author in this story really left a bad taste in my mouth. In some ways it feels like a prefiguration of Catherynne M. Valente's Palimpsest, a novel which explores the idea I just mentioned in much greater and stranger detail. Now I want to reread it, but my copy's in storage. Damn.

There are also a bunch of short stories billed as the Appendix. I won't go through all of them, just the ones that stood out.

"King Squid"
This one is was really fun. I loved the text of the pamphlet itself. Then there's the bibliography, with its strange little annotations that build up their own sad, all-too-human tragedy... Also, the way the squid described in this pamphlet grow increasingly and alarmingly weird was exactly the kind of weird I was looking for in this collection about Ambergris.

"The Exchange"
I liked this story less for the text and more for the ephemera that surrounds it. The ads, the pamphlets, the notes about the rivalry/partnership between Sporlender and Verden... All those hints at a wider stranger world nonetheless populated by people doing silly, petty human things.

"The Ambergris Glossary"
The motherlode! I enjoyed the idea of a glossary as a way of conveying bits and pieces of information about the world. And I like the idea of this one in particular as a madman's relic, with it left unclear how much was made up by the strange X who claimed to make up ambergris and how much is actually about Ambergris in all its fungal glory...

Looking over the collection as a whole, there were many shades and bits and pieces of things I really enjoyed. But there was also a lot -- more than I expected -- that left me cold. It didn't really meet my expectations, not in a disappointment way, more in a "didn't mesh at all" way.

Even so, I'm interested enough in Ambergris (and VanderMeer's later work in Ambergris) that I'm interested in the novels. With the first stories under his belt and more room to breathe, will the novels be deeper, broader, weirder? I hope so.

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