Bookmunch classic review: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

[This review first appeared on Bookmunch in 2002.]

IMG_20Dec2021at002730Welcome to Ambergris. It’s a place unlike any other. There is history here, great history (you’ll learn some). There is corruption (not political corruption, or at least I don’t think so – nobody really knows if anybody is in charge anymore and as long as we remain in the dark we can’t suspect the air of corruption now can we?), but it is soul corruption – the sense that something has gone wrong, that the scales have tipped and we are seconds away from impending disasters (and hear the high end piano key of that word – disasters – the disasters here will be plural). We will see wonders (Ambergris has many wonders, no doubt of that), and the circus barker (whose shoes are occasionally, but only occasionally, filled by Jeff VanderMeer – when Nicholas Sporlender or Sirin or X or Dradin or Duncan Shriek are not around) will, from time to time, make us laugh out loud like fools (but when we have laughed we will clap a hand to our mouth, panic-stricken to have slipped so, to have let our guard down . . . Have we forgotten where we are?).

We are in Ambergris. It is home to spiteful dwarves with mapped bodies (blue tattooed rivers swirling about a dwarf skull, disappearing into green jungles and wilderness, a tattoo of Ambergris and its environs that may cover an entire body – part of us wants to see, part of us wants to hide) who want our blood. It is home to grey caps, people (or creatures, we’re never quite sure) who live among the mushrooms and only come out at night – the grey caps are the original inhabitants of Ambergris. Over a hundred years ago, they may have been responsible for spiriting away more than 25,000 people. We’ll never know, for sure. We try to keep out of their way. Perhaps that way they won’t hurt us. It is home (or was home) to Voss Bender, the composer who disappeared and started a civil war, all but. It is home to the masque (huge knife wielding birds imploring you to cut the man’s throat). It is home to transformation and madness. It is home to darkness (darkness that lives and breathes and throbs upon your bedroom wall). It is home to creeping fungal illness (that would be the grey caps, perhaps), creeping fungal illness that starts with a thumbprint of green, perhaps under the ear, or in the pit of your arm, illness that will reduce you to dust in time (in too-little time), you’ll be spores. You die and become infection. All this and we haven’t even mentioned the cage (possibly the scariest story you’ll read all year), the King Squid monograph (Ambergris is a settlement that dedicates itself to celebrating the King Squid, but don’t go out when they are celebrating or you may end the night swinging from a lamp post with your belly cut open and your intestine steaming out of you like a kite-tail) with its accompanying hilarious bibliography . . .

You’ll quickly come to see that attempting to describe Ambergris (and, by implication, the wonderful City of Saints and Madmen) only results in your awareness of just how much there is to tell, how much there is to hint at, how much there is to be silent about. Here is a book with a short story on the cover (a short story told by somebody who will appear again, elsewhere in the book). Here is a book told by Jeff VanderMeer, a man who is now one of the missing, a man who may (if we are to be quietly frightened by what we have read) have stepped over to the other side, a man who right now may be inhabiting a cell in Ambergris. Here is a book with numerous fonts and numerous styles – here is a book whose various appellations are too numerous to completely explicate. It is like nothing else. Or rather, it is similar to one or two or three or four or half a dozen things (everything from House of Leaves through The Arabian Nights and Don Quixote to Nights at the Circus, The Trial, The Unconsoled and Ghormenghast) and yet it is different from them all.

As indeed it should be.

Any Cop?: City of Saints and Madmen is a vast, elaborate prank (more, a concatenation of pranks, it is a suitcase of wet cats and magic books, it is a lolloping, one-legged freak of a book with tales to tell, dark tales of the old days, darker tales of days to come). You will not have read much like it. It’s my thinking that you won’t read much like it again. Not, at least, until we hear from Mr VanderMeer again.

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