[Note: This review refers to the Cosmos Books paperback edition of the book]
"What can be said about Ambergris that has not already been said? Every minute section of the city, no matter how seemingly superfluous, has a complex, even devious, part to play in the communal life. And no matter how often I stroll down Albumuth Boulevard, I never lose my sense of the city’s incomparable splendorits love of ritual, its passion for music, its infinite capacity for the beautiful cruelty."
--Voss Bender, Memoirs of a Composer, Vol. No. 1, page 558,
Ministry of Whimsy Press
Back in the 1990s, stories started appearing set in a wondrous place called Ambergris. Their sharp intellect, careful attention to detail, dreamy imagery and wicked sense of humor marked the author as a "writer’s writer"someone that other writers read and discussed and championed. Unfortunately, the sad truth of being a "writer’s writer" is that finding a wider audience is toughthey make you work for your payoff, and general audiences are often unwilling to put forth the effort (assuming they can even find the books in their local storesmainstream publishers are as reluctant to take chances as general audiences). It’s a crying shame, too, because more people should meet Jeff VanderMeer and spend some time in Ambergris. Hey; anybody who loves squid this much has got to be a good guy.
City Of Saints and Madmen is made up of four award-winning novellas. The first, "Dradin in Love," tells the story of a failed missionary’s attempt to find work and meet the girl of his dreams, who he has only seen through a shop window. Before we reach the "beautiful cruelty" of the story’s end, we’ve gotten a tour of various parts of the city, we’ve met the mysterious original inhabitants of Ambergris, the gray caps, we’ve taken a peek at religion in the city, and we’ve seen the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, which is beyond anything you can imagine. The detail in the story is lush and rich and entirely believable, and amazingly, it doesn’t get in the way of the main action.
The second story is "The Early History of Ambergris," which purports to be an informational pamphlet written by Ambergrisian historian Duncan Shriek. The history is fascinating in detail and in scope, and the sarcastic asides, academic infighting and alternate versions of stories that appear in Shriek’s numerous footnotes give depth both to the history of Ambergris and to the character of the historian narrating the events.
Next comes the World Fantasy Award-winning "The Transformation of Martin Lake." Here we get the story of Martin Lake, a painter moderate in both success and skill. Martin’s life and art is changed forever the night he is chosen at random to participate in a dark and terrible crime. The language is lyrical, the imagery is dark and dreamy.
The concluding novella is "The Strange Case of X." It tells the story of X, an author with a history very like VanderMeer’s, who is being held in a psychiatric ward because he thinks he has actually seen the fantasy land (called Ambergris) that he writes about. The ending is a delightfully vicious little thing.
Together, the 4 novellas add up to more than the sum of their parts. The specific and abundant details combined with the poetic and dreamlike images paint a compelling picture. It’s very easy fall into the same trap as the ubiquitous "X"; how can you not believe in Ambergris? I’ve physically visited cities that have not had as much of an impact as VanderMeer’s stellar creation, and memories of Ambergris have been creeping into my dreams. VanderMeer may well be the best fantasist working today. He slips past your defenses and seeds the hidden recesses of your imagination with spores that fruit in unexpected ways. You owe it to yourself to give him a try.