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City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Tor UK, 496 pages

City of Saints and Madmen
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 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). He began the publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, which 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 wife Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Excerpt: The Mansions of the Moon
SF Site Excerpt: The Mimic
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Review: The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases
SF Site Review: Veniss Underground
SF Site Review: Leviathan Three
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

City of Saints and Madmen has had a long gestation period but this, the first British publication, marks the final, definitive edition. Although what would become the first part of the book was completed in 1993 and published in 1996, it didn't appear as a collection until the 2001 Cosmos Books paperback edition. The author admits "the path from writing the stories to finding a publisher to oh-so-elusive publication has been so perilous, so littered with dead-ends and false starts, that it often seemed unlikely it would ever see print."1

It was worth the wait and when you pick up the finished product it seems less a book than an artefact. Its wraparound cover is actually composed of a short story that forms part of the book itself whilst cunningly displaying the usual information. It has been illuminated by seven different illustrators, bears a two-page note of the seven fonts used (though sadly these don't include the alluded to Porfal Erogenous) and contains a story entirely written in code. As this suggests the physical makeup of the book is a little complex. City of Saints and Madmen is a mosaic formed of halves, quarters and fragments but it is broadly split down the middle into The Book Of Ambergris and its AppendiX. The titles are well chosen as the city of Ambergris squats at the heart of the book. Its presence is constant throughout the book, even if its nature is not.

Founded by whaler-cum-pirate Cappan John Manzikert Ambergris is built on top of a far older, non-human city. When Manzikert sailed up the River, Moth the mushroom-like grey caps were already in situ. Communication between the two species was impossible and the relationship between them was characterised by hostility on one side and indifference on the other but they managed to co-exist. Then, waking up with a vile hangover one day, Manzikert spotted some lichen that he decided resembled the Lepress Saint Kristina of Malfour being menaced by a grey cap. This was clearly a sign and he took it to mean a massacre was in order. This he duly carried out, but when he followed the remaining grey caps underground, Manzikert only returned days later, sightless and raving. After this life in Ambergris went back to normal until several generations later when the entire population suddenly vanished. This event, which came to be known as The Silence, is laid at the door of the grey caps. The modern city of Ambergris is therefore built on the dual psychic wounds of genocide and counter-genocide. Though humans and grey caps (now know as mushroom dwellers) once again live side-by-side the city exudes a deep psychological unease.

The Book Of Ambergris is composed of four novellas -- two of them relatively straightforward narratives, two of them decidedly not -- which are permeated with this unease. Appropriately enough saints and madmen abound in these novellas. So too do artists and writers; the implication being, perhaps, that they are a little of both.

Our first glimpse of Ambergris is through the eyes of Dradin, a failed missionary who, like us, is entering the city for the first time. In "Dradin, In Love" he finds himself instantly smitten by a woman he glimpses through a window. He attempts to woo her but finds himself entangled with a sinister dwarf and then caught up in the orgy of violence that is the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. The young, naïve romantic we first meet is not the same man who eventually flees the city "through viscera and the limbs of babies stacked in neat piles."

The World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation Of Martin Lake" details another personal disintegration. Lake is a minor artist, on the fringes of Ambergris's greats, until he receives an invitation that leads to his artistic and mental transformation. Both novellas contrast prosaic scenes of everyday life (for example, Lake collecting a letter from the Post Office) with slow eruptions of psychological horror. Jeff VanderMeer mentions the use of violence in Ian McEwan's The Innocent as being an influence on "Martin Lake" and the two authors clearly share some common approaches. For example, the stranger in a foreign city confronted by the gradual intrusion of the sinister in "Dradin, In Love" finds a parallel in McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers.

The title of "The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History Of Ambergris by Duncan Shreik" pretty much says it all. It is here we learn the story of Ambergris, Manzikert and much more, all presented as a piece of non-fiction and densely annotated in the manner of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.2 Finally we are faced with the wilfully post-modern "The Strange Case Of X". In a dank asylum a psychiatrist interrogates patient X, a man who bares a strong resemblance to a certain Jeff VanderMeer and who claims to have written a bestselling book called City Of Saints And Madmen. There is some sense of the inevitable about the final revelation but it is effective and whilst it intially seems a radical departure from the rest of the book it actually provides a central pillar to the book.

The AppendiX follows in the idiosyncratic footsteps of The Book Of Ambergris itself. It is presented as a collection of documents found on the person of X and the two best pieces are as different in form as the preceding novellas. The hilarious "King Squid by Frederick Madoc" is presented as a monograph on this greatest of all squid (not to be confused with lesser squid such as "the malodorous Stunted Beak Squid, the aptly-diagnosed Stockton Disabled Squid and the repugnant Saphant Arse Squid"). Even in this explicitly humorous piece though there is an undercurrent of menace: Madok's footnotes outline a poisoned childhood and a dubious mental state. "The Cage", on the other hand, takes after "Martin Lake" and here the terror invoked by the contents of the titular cage is overt. At the same time VanderMeer sketches out the relationship between the protagonist, one of the Hoegbotton clan, and his blind wife with touching care making this the single best piece of work in the collection.

You probably won't have failed to notice my repeated use of words such as "menace" and "sinister" and they are well chosen. The grey caps serve as a metaphor for the book as a whole: something subterranean and alien lurks beneath its surface. It is a black, witty and extremely rich book; VanderMeer is writing literary fantasy that aims high and his reach matches his ambition. The acclaim that City Of Saints And Madmen has received is entirely justified.

1 Jeff VanderMeer recounts the whole saga in an engrossing article for The Agony Column.
2 For more on footnotes see Claude Lalumière's wonderful review of an earlier incarnation of the book at Locus Online.

Copyright © 2004 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis reviews for The Telegraph And Argus, The Alien Online and Matrix, the newsletter of the British Science Fiction Association. He lives in North London.

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