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City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris
Jeff VanderMeer
Wildside Press/Cosmos Books, 219 pages

City of Saints and Madmen: The Book of Ambergris
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His recent books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). His publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his fiancée Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

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While Jeff VanderMeer has gained the attention of other notable authors in the field, writers such as Michael Moorcock, Terri Windling, or R.M. Berry, I suspect that most readers of fantasy and speculative fiction remain largely unaware of his work.  Straddling the ill-defined line between literature and genre, while the setting of his narratives draws heavily from the fantastic, employing generous use of the strange or curious incident, the style of writing and elusive narrative themes are far more frequent to literature.  And his continued and relative obscurity is unfortunate, for Jeff VanderMeer has created some of the most imaginative and truly unique landscapes and cast of characters to ever denizen either the realms of literature or fantasy.  If there was ever a true literary descendent to Jonathan Swift, Jeff VanderMeer has every right to claim the inheritance.  

With the Book of Ambergris, the author has brought to life an opulent yet decaying city-state so vibrantly that one can hear the sluice of rain on the cobblestones, savor the odors wafting from the vendor stalls hawking their wares and delicacies, and in moments of inattention peer into the darker shadows that lurk beneath the city's fašade.  This is a world where the everyday slips seamlessly and without warning into madness, the surreal met as easily as turning the corner on a street.  Not since Gormenghast has one encountered corridors and alleyways where the bizarre mixes freely with the commonplace, with a darker presence waiting just below the surface (there is Miéville's New Crobuzon, but the intentions and tone there appear quite different).  And yet much that takes place here, even in moments of peril, is interlaced with a wry and scoffing humor, as readily directed at the author himself as the plights of his protagonists.

Written with a richness of language and imagery uncommon for fantasy, and the equivalent of the best offered by contemporary literary stylists, the author blends at once a serious eye towards traditions both literary and social with an equal measure of playfulness.  Descriptive passages possess an originality and individual vitality for which it is hard to find parallel.  Idiosyncratic in approach, as well as eclectic in reference, the author acknowledges in his style of writing various literary influences, from Conrad (recognized in Michael Moorcock's delightful nod at the introduction) to Melville or Borges.  The opening to "Dradin, In Love," in the character's fascination with a figure seen through a window, the obsessive detail devoted to a building's fašade, is reminiscent of "Bartleby the Scrivener," and the names of many of the characters -- Cadimon Signal, Hoegbotton & Sons, Samuel Tonsure, Krotch, or the Autarch of Nunk -- Dickensian in whimsicality and identity.  While portraying his characters with compassion, VanderMeer often satirizes not only their actions and concerns, but the wonderful society he has created as well as, by extension, the echo of our own.

Containing two novellas, along with a history of Ambergris, a glossary, and a short story, these tales are resonant in content as well as description lavishly yet never superfluously devoted to bringing to life a remarkable fictional world that will linger in memory long after the book is put down, begging for a return to the page that will promise new and unforeseen rewards.  Like the writer in the "Strange Case of X," the reader can become so immersed in Ambergris' marvels that during the moment of apprehension one is transported, and the lines between reality and fiction blurred.  In these moments, like the author himself, one begins to ponder where one truly prefers to exist: as a visitor to the strange wonders created on the turning page, or cognizant of the real world around one and the self-aware act of reading.  Is the real world within the imagination, or confined to our sentient recognition and consciousness of the act of imagining, the interior realm of the mind separate and determined by our exterior apprehension of ourselves, our actions and our physical surroundings?  As the author in this short story admits to a blurring experienced between the imagined and the real in his immersion within his creation, so too is the same experience and question posed to the reader, the success of his ability to captivate the imagination resulting in a resounding if at times unsettling yes.

The two novellas, "Dradin, In Love" and "The Transformation of Martin Lake," both broadly concern themselves with characters that experience epiphanous moments in their lives.  In "Dradin," a failed missionary becomes obsessed with a woman he has only seen through a window, in his imagination enacting their courtship, giving her gifts that he has delivered without ever seeing her.  His first gift is a book concerning incorporeal passion, for which he purchases a copy for himself in order that they might possibly touch the same pages as, in his imagination, they read together.  The second novella, winner of the World Fantasy Award, concerns an artist who is presented with a choice between murdering another and saving his own life.  His decision has unalterable and unforeseen consequences, both for his art and his career.  Woven throughout this tale is a survey of the artist's work written ostensibly by an art historian, in which the author turns a satiric eye towards the assumptions existing in any attempt to interpret an artist through his work.  

But perhaps the most delightful part of this collection is found in the "History," the "Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris" and its accompanying glossary, in which the author provides an often hilarious commentary upon figures and events found elsewhere within the stories, poking fun at academics and the chronicles of the city itself, couched within the framework of a serious historical treatise, complete with copious footnotes.  Here we learn about the founding of the city by Cappan John Manzikert, a "giant" in the annals of Amberbris; The Silence whose horror can still be seen in boarded up and bricked in buildings scattered throughout the city; the nocturnal and subterranean civilization that dwells deep beneath the streets.  Additionally, famous and noteworthy locations, such as the Spore of the Gray Cap or the Arch of Tarbut, are included, as well as a wealth of information regarding Ambergrisian society and culture, including the long-lost recipe for Oliphaunt's Delight.  For any that have a love of flipping through guides or historical references, this chapter should prove a true pleasure, if for no other reason than that it intentionally skews events and records in a way history never intended.

Behind all this, almost a character unto itself, is the metropolis of  "lawless Ambergris, that oldest of cities."  Ambergris provides a wondrous backdrop to the stories unfolding, fresh sights and marvels appearing upon each page: the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, with its pageantry and costumes and innocent revelry that ritually transforms into mayhem.  The Religious Quarter, known as Pejora's Folly, with its myriad faiths, cults and canon of saints, including Solon the Decrepit and Philip the Philanderer.  In a setting at once medieval and lifted from Conrad's novels, one can still see the occasional Manzikert car backfiring its way around donkeys and carts.  Exotic wares and peoples travel the River Moth to disembark at the city docks, and mysterious tribes live in the surrounding jungles of The Great Beyond, their existence and customs only rumor.  One can ride in a cab with a sheep, though not expect much in the way of conversation.  And of course, an important destination for any tourist is the Borges Bookstore on Albumuth Boulevard, where the customer can peruse funereals entitled "Objects of Desire," the many and various Hoegbotton & Sons guides, the imprints of the Ministry of Whimsy, or purchase that essential work on incorporeal passion mentioned above, "Refractions of Light in a Prison."  Yet over towering all is the city of Ambergris, in its multitudes and the ghosts of its memories almost sentient itself, where wealth dwells amidst squalor (and the occasional fungus), reducing its residents in the shadow of its image, where "buildings [battle] for breath and space like centuries-slow soldiers in brick-to-brick combat." 

Once visited, you will want to return, and if circumstances detain you, you will not soon forget.  The author has created a world so diverse and protean in its wonders, life-like in expression, that he has fashioned an alternate reality unlike any that has gone before, irresistible in its curiosities and marvels.  And, he has done it with the voice of a siren.  It can be said no better than by Michael Moorcock at the book's opening: "It's what you've been looking for."

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.


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