Categorized | Fiction

City of Saints and Madmen Fiction Review

Posted on April 2, 2008 by Flames

Available at

This is a collection of short stories by Jeff Vandermeer both tangentially and directly about a fictional fantasy city called Ambergris, noted for its somewhat piratical past, the presence of mysterious and sinister mushroom men and freshwater squid. It is also very, very, very weird and very, very, very surreal. I suppose, broadly, it fits into the general thrust of the urban fantasy movement but it is also a damn sight weirder, more Burroughs than Mieville. One story might be a more conventional fantasy story, another might play with the relationship between fantasy and reality and the other might leave you scratching your head and reaching for the dictionary just so you could read something fully comprehensible for a change.

This is a nice thick book of stories and articles of varying length which are all, kind of, aimed in and around the fictional city of Ambergris. A made up city state on a great river made rich by the freshwater squid harvest and founded by little better than pirates who violently ousted the original inhabitants – a race of mushroom people – who still occasionally make their presence known by taking ‘sacrifices’ from the city streets. Ambergris is just pain weird, the obsession with squid, the peculiarity of the mushroom folk, the actions and professions of the people described but it also takes on an almost steampunky, victorianesque slant through much of the book.

It’s confused, or confusing, but that seems deliberate. There are treatise on squid, historical accounts, personal stories set in and around the city and the crossing over between the real world and the fantasy world of the author himself. There are illustrations, many of them redolent of Aubrey Beardsley and there are changes of typeface and position that recall House of Leaves and Cummings, just not quite as extreme.

The chopping and changing of perspective and voice does illustrate the writer’s skill but it is deeply confusing as you move from one story to the next and try to absorb them as a single whole, such and approach barely works and it may be better to read them as individual stories since, despite the commonality of Ambergris they are all so very different but, if that’s the case, why bring them together in a collected edition?

It’s undeniably good, it’s just the nature of the material and its presentation leaves you dizzy and wondering quite what the hell is going on, something short and more down to earth between each section might have worked as a mental palate cleanser, preparing us for the next installment, but unfortunately that simply isn’t present here.

If I just tell you that the introduction is by Michael Moorcock, maybe that’ll help get across some of what I mean. One of the Jerry Cornelius’ (Corneliai?) would be quite at home in Ambergris, possibly the only person who would be.

Reading this book was rather like going out on the lash with too much beer money and a pocket full of magic mushrooms. You come out the other end confused, feeling a bit sick and with a traffic cone and a traffic warden’s hat that you’re not sure how you got but that’s just an indicator you had a good time, even if you don’t quite remember how or why you had that good time.

Style: 4
Substance: 4
Overall: 4

Review by James ‘Grim’ Desborough

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