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City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

City of Saints and Madmen

by Jeff VanderMeer

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,346245,730 (4.06)61
  1. 80
    Perdido Street Station by China Miéville (bertilak)
  2. 30
    The Islanders by Christopher Priest (anglemark)
    anglemark: Eerily similar in style and theme.
  3. 20
    The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford (gonzobrarian)
  4. 10
    The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard (Anonymous user)
  5. 10
    Viriconium: "The Pastel City", "A Storm of Wings", "In Viriconium", "Viriconium Nights" by M. John Harrison (whiten06)
    whiten06: Viriconium was clearly an inspiration for City of Saints and Madmen.
  6. 21
    Finch by Jeff VanderMeer (ParadoxicalRae)
  7. 00
    At the Mountains of Madness and Other Tales of Terror {4 stories} by H.P. Lovecraft (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Seems likely Vandermeer was inspired by Lovecraft. Both have "subterranean terrors". Tons of other similarities too, though thankfully lacking Lovecraft's racist commentary.

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Showing 1-5 of 23 (next | show all)
I have had this book on my to be read pile for quite a while and was excited to finally pick it up to read. While it wasn’t the easiest book to read; Vandermeer does an amazing job creating an imaginative city that ends up seeming incredibly real to the reader.

The book is a collection of a number of stories which I have written in more detail about below. The book’s climax occurs once you get to The Strange Case of X in which you find out more about the author of Dradin, In Love and the Transformation of Martin Lake. The Appendix is a series of items and stories found in the possession of X which help the reader stitch together a more complete image of the city of Ambergris.

Parts of the book are a bit of a slog to get through, but the book is also darkly humorous at times. The stories range from humorous and witty, to grotesque and darkly disturbing with more than a hint of madness running throughout. Definitely an adult read.

The book is completely unique (I have never read anything like this before) and does an excellent job of immersing the reader in the strangely beautiful yet grotesque city of Ambergris. This is not a book for the faint of heart or those who like their stories defined and clear cut.

Overall I am glad I read it but doubt I will read it again. The detail and depth that goes into creating the strange and unique city of Ambergris is amazing; I love how the reader has to piece together facts about the city from the various documents provided. That being said this is not an easy read and is plain boring at parts. I would recommend to those who are into Cthulhu mythos and are interested in strangely beautiful yet disturbing stories and don’t mind some ambiguity. See below for comments on each section.

Dradin, In Love (4 stars)
About a young man named Dradin who returns from an expedition to the Jungle as a missionary and falls in love with a young woman. As he proceeds to woo the young woman he finds that there are darker parts to city living than there every were in the jungle.

The Hogbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris (3 stars)
This is a history of Ambergris and explores in more detail the relationship between the people who now inhabit Ambergris and the grey caps or mushroom folk that originally lived in that area and were displaced. This was very cleverly done and was in turns boring, amusing, and disturbing. I was impressed with the detail included, it really made Ambergris and its history come alive. However this definitely wasn’t the easiest thing to read and at times read like a history book.

The Transformation of Martin Lake (4 stars)
This was a story about an artist who lived in Ambergris. The story alternates between an art historian's account/interpretation of Martin’s famous works and the story of Martin himself and the events that actually led to him making his famous paintings. This was well done although the art historian parts were a bit of a drag to get through.

The Strange Case of X (5 stars)
This is about a patient named X who is apparently the author of both Dradin, In Love and The Transformation of Martin Lake.. He is being interviewed by a psychiatric doctor about his delusions and the fact that he believes Ambergris is real. There are some delightful twists in this story that really bring all the previous stories together.

Appendix (4 stars)
A collections of stories, notes, etc found in the possession of X from the story above. Many of these details the mysterious interactions with the grey caps as they haunt and torment the city of Ambergris. There is also an Appendix to Ambergris. ( )
  krau0098 | Oct 11, 2015 |
The fumbling priest, Dradin, who is in love with... a lovely lady in a window, of course. You must read some parts of the Appendix to understand his state fully. What of Martin Lake, then, the famous painter? And Voss Bender, the composer and art-tyrant? Before you know it, you will think of these people and their curious existence a natural part of the real world of Ambergris. And the case of X, which is a collection of various stories and documents, will require patience to reveal itself as a cabinet of curiosities of all shapes and forms, all seemingly unrelated yet related in unseen ways. And what of the King Squid, you say? Well, you will learn all about this magnificent creature, of course, which may or may not make you hungry for some calamari.

A well-written, sumptuous world full of love, lust, dirt, and fungi... and academics! VanderMeer captivates as he tells the stories of individuals in the city of Anbergris, where the city itself is perhaps the main character. The history of Ambergris could be taught in history class, for we have some valuable lessons to learn from it (though humans don't seem to be the learning kind.) ( )
1 vote bluepigeon | Dec 15, 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. This author is resolute in accepting that he was crazy to believe in Ambergris and wants to be rehabilitated and returned to his former life, medicated or otherwise. But…turns out…he’s actually in a madhouse in Ambergris denying the very reality of where, in fact, he is. (Seriously, who believes in this “Chicago,” anyway?) See the twist there??? You think he’s an author in a madhouse in our world who is going crazy channeling Ambergris. When the ending is…he’s actually in Ambergris denying reality…BUT…he may actually be from Chicago and slipped accidentally into his own vision. Double twist!! Triple Threat!!! QUADRUPLE BY-PASS!!!!

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.)
( )
  David_David_Katzman | Nov 26, 2013 |
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. ( )
  BrookeAshley | May 19, 2013 |
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"What can be said about Ambergris that has not already been said? Every minute section of the city, no matter how seemingly superfluous, has a complex, even devious, part to play in the communal life. And no matter how often I stroll down Albumuth Boulevard, I never lose my sense of the city's incomparable splendor--its love of ritual, its passion for music, its infinite capacity for the beautiful cruelty."
--Voss Bender, Memoirs of a Composer, Vol. No. 1, page 558, Ministry of Whimsy Press
For Ann, who means more to me than words
First words
Dradin, in love, beneath the window of his love, staring up at her while crowds surge and seethe around him, bumping and bruising him all unawares in their bright-roughed thousands.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris" is a different work from "City of Saints and Madmen".
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553383574, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:50 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

Fantasy. Collects all of the Ambergris novellas and stories.

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