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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. 23 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 Unpredictable twists and turns, Nov. 10 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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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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5.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully Magical, April 10 2002
'The City of Saints and Madmen' is easily my favorite collection of 2001. Comprised of four stories, each more deliciously exotic and fascinating than the one before, this attractively priced trade paperback is sure to entrance all readers willing to immerse themselves in VanderMeer's brilliantly conceived world.
VanderMeer's Ambergris is easily the most lavish and enticing fantastic world that I've yet to encounter. Articulating the brilliance of this book would require writing skills on a par with VanderMeer himself. I can only point to the book and insist that it is excellent. Truly excellent.
Taken by themselves, the stories are small gems...but when looked at as a whole, as part of the wonderful Ambergrisian tapestry, they become more than the sum of their parts. I anguished with the title character in 'Dradin in Love' as he realizes that his passionate longing for a mysterious woman is unlikely to be consummated. The fascinating history of Ambergris as told in 'The Hoegbotton Guide to Ambergris by Duncan Shriek' is surely one of the most complete histories of a fictional world ever conceived. The World Fantasy Award Winning 'The Transformation of Martin Lake' tells the amazing story of a humble artist who is transformed into a master through a harrowing and bizarre experience. Finally, 'The Strange Case of X' blurs the lines between fantasy and reality as an author whose life appears analogous to VanderMeer's undergoes rigorous questioning concerning the substance of reality.
Under VanderMeer's watchful eye, Ambergris is a thriving and exotic landscape. I devoured this collection in a matter of hours. Hungry for more I jumped onto the internet and searched out more VanderMeer. Ambergris is so fascinating and richly exotic that I could see VanderMeer writing about its Living Saints and Graycaps for decades without running out of stories to tell.
Immerse yourself in Ambergris. The land is hauntingly beautiful and terrifyingly real. I can see myself re-reading this brilliant collection several times a year. This masterful collection belongs on the bookshelf of every fan of speculative fiction. I'm eagerly looking forward to the Deluxe edition which supposedly contains 30,000 more words about this wonderful place and is supposed to be released Real Soon Now.
This volume, exciting and beautiful, is easily one of my all-time favorite books. Try it yourself. You won't be disappointed. Highly Recommended.
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4.0 out of 5 stars A good, but imperfect and short, collection, Jan. 5 2002
By 
Kevin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
This book is a collection of four stories set in the city of Ambergris. Though there are tenuous links between the four, they are separate works and I will discuss them separately.
"The Early History of Ambergris" was the first of the four I read, though it is actually second in the book. It is an extremely funny account of the city's history, told through the persona of an imaginary historian. Despite the humor, it seems more real than one would expect, and I found myself forming opinions on the authenticity of imaginary documents. Now that I have read the acknowledgments, I find that the writing style is actually a real historian's. I must find out more about that guy.
"Dradin, In Love" is the first story, though I read it second. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare, starting out in mere confusion and spiralling downward into madness. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain anything really interesting; it's just a sequence of progressively more disturbing images, few of which are particualrly original or aesthetically interesting. Not that another review on this page gives away something extremely important about this story.
"The Transformation of Martin Lake" is much better. It chronicles a series of dramatic events in the life of an Ambergrisian artist. Though magnificent for what it tells, it is also infuriating (in a good way) for what it does not tell. It is also genuinely scary, more so than much so-called "horror" fiction. I would call this the best story here.
"The Strange Case of X" is the shortest story, and feels almost like an addendum. It is very interesting, as so many stories about madmen tend to be. VanderMeer's descriptive language is wonderfully hallucinatory. I regret that it was published here, however, as this caused me to assume from the start one of the story's crucial surprises.
Though the stories included here were very good, I was disappointed that the city of Ambergris itself did not figure more strongly into the book. Other reviewers here and elsewhere have said that the setting is incredible, but it didn't come alive for me in the same way that Middle-earth, New Crobuzon, or the other truly great settings do. I also felt somewhat shortchanged, given how little text there is here relative to the book's price.
In his introduction to this book, Michael Moorcock writes that "It's what you've been looking for." I have indeed been seeking something like this collection, but it didn't quite fulfill my hopes. I do recommend it, though. It's very different from anything else I've read, and VanderMeer has some truly original ideas. In his next books, I may indeed find what I am looking for.
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5.0 out of 5 stars I can't give this more than five stars?, Dec 15 2001
By 
Andrew J. Breitenbach (Salt Lake City, UT USA) - See all my reviews
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The four weird, grotesque novellas contained in this book are among the best works of fiction I have ever read period, particularly "Dradin, in Love". Having the four of them in one omnibus does wonders to (on?) one's psyche. Though each delves into the (usually) humorously bizarre, each takes a very different tack to wend its way towards its scintillant heart, so that all four stories end up wondrously bouncing off, bleshing, and commenting on each other, despite their wide distribution of publication dates.
There really is no other author who writes like Jeff VanderMeer, especially here in the four core Ambergris stories, but names like Angela Carter (of whom VanderMeer is quite the fan), Jorge-Luis Borges (who owns a splendid bookshop, by the way, on Ambergris' main drag, Albemuth Boulevard), M. John Harrison, Lucius Shepard, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, and even Cordwainer Smith come to mind through free association. Strange lifeforms abound: giant squid, malevolent mushrooms, swarthy dwarves, living saints, raving priests, burning birds, and more fungus than you could choke a squad of mad yaks with. Literary, baroque, yet eminently -- nay, *compulsively* readable, the Ambergris novellas are precisely my cup of frothing tea, and therefore are yours.
IF YOU BUY ONE BOOK THIS YEAR, BUY THIS ONE. It will change your life. Really.
Hark! I can hear the happy cries of pain from the Festival of the Freshwater Squid! Come, let's join the fun!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Great Writing, Great Storytelling, Great Book, Sept. 25 2001
By 
D. Read "Maximumdread" (GA USA) - See all my reviews
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For those who have not yet discovered Jeff Vandermeer, and his rich, beautiful, and terrible world called Ambergris, I envy you. Within the pages of City of Saints and Madmen, you will find a rare quality of writing and storytelling that will at turns cause you to laugh, to cringe, to wonder, and to marvel at the audacity and daring of a writer to create these characters, situations, and settings. For those who are looking mainly for great storytelling, human drama, and fantastic settings, you will absolutely find what you are looking for here. However, for those who are also fetishists for exquisite prose, you will find more than you bargained for. Vandermeer's skill with the English language is what is sure to earn him an international following. Reading City of Saints and Madmen, it is clear that the author has slaved over every word, every sentence. I cannot fathom the rewriting, polishing, and sleepless nights that must go into this kind of prose.
Everything in this book is great, but my favorite piece has to be the novella "The Transformation of Martin Lake." This is the one that won the World Fantasy Award, beating out the likes of Lucius Shepard and Tanith Lee that year. Another favorite is "Dradin, In Love," which was a finalist for the prestigious Theodore Sturgeon Award. City of Saints and Madmen is indeed a collection, but if you are primarily a fan of novels, don't let that put you off. The four main pieces are quite long, and each is quite satisfying on its own. This is not just a collection of short stories, but rather more like a cycle of novellas, all set in the same world. Also, this kind of "literary" fantastical writing always brings up the "Is it genre fiction?" question, but I hope that you will find that Vandermeer transcends these concerns in the same way that Jonathan Carrol and Angela Carter do.
Finally, you have probably guessed that given this level of praise (bordering, no doubt, on hyperbole), I was a fan of Jeff Vandermeer's before the publication of this book. If you did, then you guessed right. I have been a fan for many years, and I keep waiting for the world to catch on to this great writer. As you will see from the introduction by Michael Moorcock and the words of praise by China Mieville, Norman Spinrad, Terri Windling, Brian Stableford, Thomas Ligotti, Paul Di Filippo, and Ed Bryant, I am not the only one. Enjoy.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is one of the weirdest books I've ever read..., May 2 2002
By 
Mrs T.Taylor (Stone Mountain, GA) - See all my reviews
...but not just weird -- it's wonderful. A novel, a travel-guide to the bizarre universe of Amebergris, a dissertation on the habits of various squids -- giant and imaginary -- a fictional
bibliography, a love story. Librarians will be delighted by it!
This is like the whole of Dunsany or Lovecraft crammed into a
single volume -- but a lot more fun. I came by this book by
accident. It has all the marks of a fantasy classic. If you
find Lovecraft too gloomy, Cabell too precious and Dunsany too airy fairy -- then this is the perfect book for you. I can't describe it very well -- but I can't recommend it enough. You'll love it. Original, weird, funny and brilliantly written. There is no category for a book like this -- unless it is a category on its own. Wish I had the words to describe it better -- but this is a book a lot of people bored with regular fantasy are really going to love. It's a joy and seems to have been written joyfully!
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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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