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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly realized body of work
Its difficult to know where to begin describing Jeff VanderMeer's remarkable "City of Saints and Madmen"; with it's interweaving plot lines cutting across stories, one is never sure where one section begins and another leaves off. Moreover, the world of Ambergris is so fully realized, and yet so willfully fanciful, one can never quite find one's footing. In the hands of...
Published on Aug. 29 2003 by J. N. Mohlman

versus
2.0 out of 5 stars It was OK
I dont' want to be harsh on this book because it is quality fantasy. In other words, it's not of the epic fantasy genre. The biggest problem was that I never fully grasped Ambergris. Its like Ambergris was a giant painting and I only saw small slices of it. It feels more like a hastilly published companion piece to a successful novel that takes place in Ambergris...
Published on Sept. 24 2002 by Eric Vondy


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfectly realized body of work, Aug. 29 2003
By 
J. N. Mohlman (Barrington, RI USA) - See all my reviews
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Its difficult to know where to begin describing Jeff VanderMeer's remarkable "City of Saints and Madmen"; with it's interweaving plot lines cutting across stories, one is never sure where one section begins and another leaves off. Moreover, the world of Ambergris is so fully realized, and yet so willfully fanciful, one can never quite find one's footing. In the hands of a less skilled writer, all of this would add up to a bizarre mish-mash, but VanderMeer somehow weaves it together into one unified work.
Moreover, this is a book for booklovers; the arrangement is a work of art in and of itself. The use of fonts, illustrations, footnotes, even the binding adds to the illusion. The cover itself is remarkable, as it contains both a short story and a hilarious fictional biography of the author. VanderMeer and his publisher have succeeded admirably in creating a volume that harkens to an era when books were not only repositories of writing, but valuable for what surrounded the writing.
And what writing it is! VanderMeer flashes descriptive powers that border on the hallucinogenic; the pages absolutely drip with the essence of Ambergris. From the giant squid that inhabit the River Moth, to the serenely vicious Grey Caps, the author has produced a world that is both bizarrely foreign and completely believable at the same time. One of the keys to this success is VanderMeer's wise decision to left some things unsaid; for every piece of information about Ambergris that he doles out, he holds back ten, leaving the reader craving more, but also making his world believable because of its very complexity. In this regard (at least), he is the equal of China Mieville, who has likewise created a world that is both foreign and familiar.
As for the stories themselves, I could spend the entire review on any one of them, but given the constraints of the medium, I'll just touch on some of the highlights. First off is the cover story, which I mentioned above. Although necessarily brief, it immediately introduces the reader to VanderMeer's talent with descriptive phrases like "muscular water". Moreover, it reveals two key things about VanderMeer's writing. The first is that while Ambergris may be fanciful, it is still every bit as brutal (and as beautiful) as our own. The second is VanderMeer's fascinating penchant for self-reference; he seems both fascinated and puzzled by his creation. The result is a desire to nurture it, but a fear of being defined, or even consumed, by it.
Next is "Dradin in Love" which reveals Ambergris in all its glory and horror. Detailing the angst of the eponymous Dradin, it is by turns touching and horrifying. This is by no means a conventional love story; its conclusion questions whether benign illusion is preferable to brutal truth. As with most of these stories, there are illuminating facts dropped elsewhere in the book, particularly one about Dradin's time as a jungle missionary.
Next is a fictional history that details the founding of Ambergris and which is perhaps my favorite story. It is incredibly detailed, richly textured and deftly written. VanderMeer uses this "historical" approach to write a story that is maddeningly incomplete, yet which provides the foundation for much of the rest of the book.
After that is "The Transformation of Martin Lake" which is perhaps the strongest story in terms of message. In it, VanderMeer seems to be commenting on the futility of not just criticism, but history itself. Essentially, since all human action is informed by the mind, and since the mind of another is inherently unknowable, there is a sort of transitive effect whereby all human action, and hence history, is at best a confused muddle. At worst, it is either an ignorant or willful sham perpetrated by those with an agenda or those too stupid to interpret even the limited snapshot into other lives that we are granted.
The second half of the book falls under the bailiwick of "The Strange Case of Mr. X" which is an account of VanderMeer's stay in an Ambergrisian mental hospital. It sounds horribly contrived, but VanderMeer pulls it off nicely. Each story in this latter half is ostensibly an item found in the author's cell after his puzzling disappearance. But far from being distinct, they rather from a whole that can only be appreciated once one has read all the way through them.
They range from an hysterical monograph on the King Squid that inhabit the River Moth to an encoded story. What they all have in common is a bizarre symbiosis that offers insight into each story at the most surprising moments. For example, the aforementioned squid study rewards the reader of the footnotes with a rather poignant glimpse at the "author's" life. Likewise, the coded story isn't just a gimmick; the rather gruesome circumstances of its origin mandate a brutal decoding that mirror the words revealed on the page.
In the end, there's not much more that I can except that "City of Saints and Madmen" is not only one of the most beautifully rendered books I have encountered, but one of the most supremely written. Not since reading Bradbury's collections of short stories have I encountered a collection that feeds off itself so effectively. It reads like a novel even as it sucks the reader into maddeningly brief glimpses of Ambergris. This is a must read, and ranks at the top of the list of books I've read in the last year.
Jake Mohlman
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5.0 out of 5 stars dark and inspiring. thanks Jeff!, Feb. 6 2007
By 
B. Salomons "8r4d" (Edmonton, AB) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: City of Saints and Madmen (Paperback)
Really, I don't usually gush about books, but this one has hit me a little like a bowling ball hits a creamy whipped potato salad. I'm caught running through the subtleties in my mind, working them over in my brain like a popcorn kernel stuck in my gum, a mental irritation left over after a tasty bowl of crunchy, salty goodness. What does that mean, really? It's dark, but in so many deceiving ways that you don't even realize how dark until you're stewing the details a few hours later and the nails-on-chalkboard frustration of the narrative hits you full on. But just parts. And just here and there between the facetious humour and tongue-in-cheek political allusion. Like I said: complex. And anything short of rewriting those bottomless pits of complexity here would be an injustice.

Would I recommend it? Maybe. If you're looking for something cuddly like a Jane Austen novel, or something unambiguous like an episode of American Idol, bugger off right now. Your brain is not ready to handle this. This is horror fantasy comedy: there are no happy endings, and if only a fraction of what you read seeps into your subconscious mind, you will still lucidly dream about humanity's bitter, bloody end impaled on a stake in the centre of town as laughing cartoon characters from your childhood chant lord of the flies style limericks to the sky.

But, if your mind is ready to be wrapped in a soft cloth and smacked against a brick wall "because it builds character", read on...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Ah, the perfume of Ambergris!, May 28 2003
By 
Peter Williams (Pasadena, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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Did you ever start a book and think --about two paragraphs in-- that you'd just discovered the literary equivalent of Shangri-La: a paradise heretofore undiscovered by man? If so, you'll know the feeling I had when I started this book.
VanderMeer's writing just soars off the page. This is not a page-turner, but fiction to be savored like an old single malt scotch. Not only that, but the stories are wonderful and fully-fleshed in every way. The piecemeal and referential introduction to the world of Ambergris was also quite affecting, and contrary to a previous review of this as being a detraction, I thought that this actually enhanced the reading experience. Hell, there are a thousand other novels out there that postulate their own world and exploit them to the fullest. This book takes the opposite tack, touching on some of the salient points and the lives that happen therein, and letting Ambergris bleed through the spaces.
For me, this is a book to keep --and reread-- for life. A marvellous experience. "Martin Lake" and "Dradin, In Love" are some of the best stories I've ever come across. Did anyone mention humor? Yeah, there's plenty of that, too: the laugh out loud kind. And the hardcover (which I bought after I'd read the paperback) is incredible, with additional features and stories; "The Cage" is a masterpiece, I think. If you happen to be a demanding reader, this just may be the gold at the end of your rainbow.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but I wish it were longer, March 17 2003
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Really enjoyed this book, Jeff has a wild and coherent imagination. Only wished the book contained the stories I later learned were only available on the extended edition.
I suppose in the end I'll end buying the other and give my copy to a friend who also appreciates good literature.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Unpredictable twists and turns, Nov. 11 2002
Along side the River Moth, a city called Ambergris rose. Founded on the blood of its original inhabitants shed in its making and evolution, and steeped for centuries in the aftermath of a calamitous struggle, the cruelly beautiful and complex metropolis of Ambergris is a place of artists and composers, thieves and murders. Enhanced with an introduction by Michael Moorcock, City Of Saints And Madmen: The Book Of Ambergris, is a bizarre, eclectic, and unique science fiction narrative enhanced with appendices of "reference" documents, written by Jeff VanderMeer, a mysterious, reclusive, and brilliantly talented author. The unpredictable twists and turns, fantastic setting, and exciting narrative make City Of Saints And Madmen: The Book Of Ambergris an engrossing read for those seeking something fresh and different by way of a literary experience. Highly recommended for a sophisticated readership, City Of Saints And Madmen: The Book Of Ambergris is also available in a paperback edition (Wildside Press, 1587154366, $amount).
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4.0 out of 5 stars A flemish work of exquisite texture, Oct. 28 2002
By 
Ventura Angelo (Brescia, Lombardia Italy) - See all my reviews
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Vandermeer's words are beautiful hues in a Flemish painting. Ambergris is any town in all its colours,and one cannot admire enough the splendid tapestry of a strange alternate world.Vandermeer has truly a Byzantine mind. I recommend this book to all who wants something original,for a change, something voluptuously dark like Storm Constantine at her best,something that's not so biologically "yucky" as China Mieville's "Bas Lag" ("La-bas",really!) novels.Vandermeer's stories are a refined work of art.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A flemish work of exquisite texture, Oct. 28 2002
By 
Ventura Angelo (Brescia, Lombardia Italy) - See all my reviews
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Vandermeer's words are beautiful hues in a Flemish painting. Ambergris is any town in all its colours,and one cannot admire enough the splendid tapestry of a strange alternate world.Vandermeer has truly a Byzantine mind. I recommend this book to all who wants something original,for a change, something voluptuously dark like Storm Constantine at her best,something that's not so biologically "yucky" as China Mieville's "Bas Lag" ("La-bas",really!) novels.Vandermeer's stories are a refined work of art.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Amazingly fantastic, Oct. 2 2002
By 
Glenn McDorman (Denver) - See all my reviews
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It has been a long time since I've been this excited about being introduced to an author. Indeed, VanderMeer reminds me of the last author to get me this excited, Gene Wolfe. VanderMeer displays the same fine mastery and appreciation for the language as Wolfe, delights in weaving atypical plots as Wolfe does, and for making unexceptional people the focus of a story -- again, as Wolfe does.
Now, if you haven't read any Gene Wolfe (you should do that as soon as you get done with this book), let me explain what that means: pure and absolute delight. Every piece (and it is hard to determine how many there actually are) is stunning in its complexity and richness. Prose like this comes along about once a decade, and I'm glad to be participating in it.
Read this book!
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2.0 out of 5 stars It was OK, Sept. 24 2002
I dont' want to be harsh on this book because it is quality fantasy. In other words, it's not of the epic fantasy genre. The biggest problem was that I never fully grasped Ambergris. Its like Ambergris was a giant painting and I only saw small slices of it. It feels more like a hastilly published companion piece to a successful novel that takes place in Ambergris. The stories themselves didn't stand out to me. Martin Lake was my favorite story but I found it predictable in some ways and thus a let down. Drabin, in Love was OK but not exceptional. And Mr X was poor. The early history was good but it needed something more to go with it than the 3 other stories.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An Extraordinary Book, Aug. 20 2002
Beautiful and lush imagery highlight this collection; sure to be one of th best genre books of 2002. This edition of the VanderMeer collection contains each of the four novellas from the 2001 paperback (including the World Fantasy Award winning 'The Transformation of Martin Lake') and augments them with two major new novellas and assorted other Ambergris material, including an expanded Ambergris glossary.
The collection begins with the fantastic 'Dradin in Love'; the story of a former missionary who moves to the city of Ambergris and immediately falls hopelessly in love. The story details Dradin's exploration of Ambergris and his growing infatuation with a woman he has not met. His correspondence with his love is facilitated by a dwarf who has a map of the world tattoed on his head. 'Dradin..' is beautiful and exciting and serves as an excellent introduction to the city of Ambergris.
Second is 'The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris'; a fascinating historical study of the origins of Ambergris. An excellent piece.
Next up is 'The Transformation of Martin Lake' which tells the story of a painter Martin Lake's transformation from an obscure artist to a master. The story is told against the background of a turbulent time in Ambergris. The death of famous composer Voss Bender has polarized the city, dividing the citizens into Reds (Bender supporters) and the Greens (Anti-Bender). This is a beautiful story that justly won the World Fantasy award.
'The Strange Case of X' features a best-selling author named Jeff VanderMeer who is apparently under the delusion that Ambergris actually exists. Nicely done.
The material original to this volume is equally compelling. Most notable is the lengthy biography of the King Squid, a creature native to Ambergris. Both brilliant and hilarious, this piece presents more background to Ambergris.
Also notable is 'The Cage', the story of a strange cage that may have belonged to the mysterious gray caps. The cage is purchased by a pawnbroker (a member of the famous Hoegbotton family) who slowly begins to question his sanity as he spends time around the cage.
The collection is rounded out with a piece 'by' Ambergrisian author Nicholas Sporlender (under which name VanderMeer also wrote 'The Exchange' which is worth tracking down), an expanded Ambergris glossary (which is well worth the 30-40 minutes of reading time. Excellent) and an encrypted story that the reader must decipher word by word. Be forewarned, it will drive you mad.
But the fun doesn't stop there. There is a complete story on the front and back dustjacket, as well as an entertaining fictional biography of VanderMeer inside the DJ.
I have fallen in love with Ambergris. This collection is in a category all its own. I've never seen its like before and don't expect to find another in the near future. This book will be my 2002 Christmas gift to the readers on my list. Make sure you don't miss it. Highly recommended.
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City of Saints and Madmen
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer (Paperback - Feb. 28 2006)
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