Sunday, March 6, 2011

City of Saints and Madmen

        I don't have a whole ton of respect for Jeff VanDerMeer. I like his books, yes, but it's nowhere near the top of my lists, or people like Gaiman, Powers, and Ende. The writing and the imagery is fantastic, but some of the plots tend to fall flat, and the work isn't as strong as it could be. Still, he's likeable, and better than Jacqueline Carey, so at least there's something there. I suppose my main problem (and indeed my bias) is that I am tired of looking through every one of my favorite genres and finding an anthology edited by him in there. If I look through the "new weird", I find an anthology of his. If I look for steampunk, I find an anthology of his, and a guide to the genre as well. I'm happy he likes the genres, and I'm interested in an author that is that prolific. But this just strikes me , for whatever reason, as trying too hard. 
            City of Saints and Madmen, however, is a fantastic book, apart from how I feel about its author. It's about very human things-- love, art, insanity...but the way it tackles them is especially interesting. The book, you see, is actually about the city more than any plot or characters in it. Ambergris is the character, and a fascinating one at that...the city's waterways are patrolled by "freshwater squid" that communicate through bioluminescence, there are people dwelling in the rather frequent fungus covering the city's walls, and it has all its own festivals, districts, and its own personality. The book takes an interesting approach to the city, starting off with the outsider's approach in Dradin, In Love. Dradin is the story of a missionary from the city who has recently returned from the jungles and falls in love with a secretary...and then things get complicated from there, as a dwarf named Dvorak continues to torment him. 
         From there, it takes the dry tone of a nonfiction piece with a history of the city from when Captain Manzikert landed on the island and promptly named it after "the most secret and valued part of the whale". This is actually the driest section, as it's written in such a way that it's easy to disregard it. After all, you wouldn't want to read the history of places you've actually been to sometimes, so why read this? Granted, it does give the early history and introduce the reader to the "gray caps", little bald fungus-people who are technically the indigenous life in Ambergris, but have since been driven underground to form another society. This is, of course, after they all but slaughter the initial colonists, as well as the night where suddenly everyone in the city vanishes without a trace, leaving it empty. While these are all interesting events and provide valuable setting information, the story loses focus and doesn't really tell us anything we couldn't figure out from the other pieces in the book, or the numerous supplimental information
          Finally, the book returns to narrative with The Strange Case of X and The Transformation of Martin Lake, two books that explore the effects of Ambergris on its own citizens-- in one case, a man claims constantly that he is the author of the book City of Saints and Madmen, and that Ambergris is his creation. Martin Lake follows an artist who is invited to a murder, something that makes him even more celebrated and adds to his artistic prowess. I have a severe problem with authors being the main characters of their work, which means that I find The Strange Case of X to be the weakest story in the initial four. Even if their qualities are downplayed, it's still essentially a god character. You shouldn't do that, or if you should, you shouldn't acknowledge it. Van Der Meer says that it's a pastiche of Borges somewhere. Borges never used himself directly, Jeff.
           Overall, though, the presentation is very good. Ambergris seems like a fully-realized city, the imagery is nice and borders on Bradbury at his most poetic in Martin Lake, and the appendices defintiely flesh out the information that got left to the side or kept in the second section of the book, where it's buried under dry anecdotes. The book concludes with several "hidden" stories, such as the habits of the Freshwater Squid, touching on the reason the festival is so dangerous. The city is a fantastic place, and would that Van Der Meer had written a guidebook or a series of anecdotes, guidebooks, and the like about it instead of trying to stick to narrative structure and short stories.
          Instead, his characters are either naive and bourgeois (Martin), stupid (Dradin), or insane (Himself). They are ridiculously unsympathetic to anyone or anything, and come off more as windowdressing than anyone you would actually want to spend time with. However, this is really the only failing-- that such unsympathetic people are your protagonists-- and the book is fantastic overall. While not worth a buy, it's at least worth checking out, even if the literary references seem a little shameless and the book could stand to do better plotting.

Next Week: Is a surprise! Though it might be The Land of Laughs, The Eternal Champion series, or any number of things.

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