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City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

City of Saints and Madmen

by Jeff VanderMeer

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,316235,913 (4.07)58
  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 22 (next | show all)
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 |
Confession: I didn't actually read all of the appendix of this. I intend to finish it some day, but it's not the kind of book I feel like I can sit down and just blitz on through. The... bittiness annoys me: I do like short stories/novellas, but this isn't the easiest collection to read.

The comparisons between Perdido Street Station and this book are obvious. I felt the cities were characters in both books -- more clearly so in this book, where there's no single recurring, central character. It's an interesting collection of stories with all kinds of different tones and styles and genres, even, all centred around the fictional city of Ambergris. The writing and descriptions are quite rich, and you build up a very clear mental image of this city.

Ignoring the appendix, there are four stories:

Dradin, In Love -- This one was richest in very visual descriptions of the city. I kind of felt overwhelmed, a bit thrown in at the deep end, but I did like the descriptions. It was also the most straightforward short story -- not masquerading as anything else. The ending was weird, and clever, but also kind of predictable.

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris -- This was slightly drier, masquerading as a sort of history pamphlet. The footnotes made me laugh, but it was kind of irritating to go back and forth between text and footnotes. The style was clever, but the story wasn't as enjoyable as the first one.

The Transformation of Martin Lake -- This combined story-telling with a sort of... art criticism thing. Again, clever, and more interesting because there was also normal short story narrative. It kind of discusses misinterpretations of art and rolls its metaphorical eyes at people who pretend they understand author intent through psychoanalysing them.

The Strange Case of X -- At this point it felt like it was "too clever by half". Which is how I generally feel about authors appearing in their texts, so perhaps that isn't an unexpected reaction from me. It was kind of obvious to me, and yeah, it's a clever story device but it also wasn't that surprising. Not so much world-building or anything, just pure "lookit my clever plot device, look!".

Appendix -- Stuff related to the previous story. Some of it is interesting, some of it not, for me. ( )
  shanaqui | Apr 9, 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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