City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This type of narrative is usually a difficult sell for me.
CSM contains a number of shorter stories (novellas and novelettes) which are loosely connected, and weaves a single narrative thread through them. The reason I find this sort of thing difficult is because no sooner have I become attached to one character, they are gone and time has skipped on, sometimes by centuries. I prefer a lengthier investment.
Not all the stories are equal. The first is the weakest, imo, though it picks up towards the end. Martin Lake’s tale stood out to me, though it had no surprises, because the enjoyment (much of it, anyway) comes between the comparisons of what we know to be true of his experience, and what historians believe to be true of his influences.
Some of the passages were a little too dry, too “rpg splat book” for my preference. I skimmed any and all endnotes, glossaries, and the pages of fake academic references. A nice touch, but not really readable in story terms. If, however, you are the kind of reader who likes to extract every iota of detail, every hidden nugget or sly joke, every tiny puzzle piece of the vast mystery that is Ambergris, then all of that is certainly there for the harvesting.
I mentioned the RPG splat book feel; the sense that this is more a fantasy setting with some stories attached. It’s another reason why this sort of book is generally a hard sell for me (although, I feel compelled to add, it is exactly the sort of thing my partner loves reading.) How you feel about this aspect will be completely specific to you and your tastes. If you are the sort of person who reads RPG books for fun, this is probably something of a motherload.
Still, I’ve given it 5 stars, after spending a night thinking about it… so reasons why this made the 5 star list:
– I didn’t enjoy every story equally, but I did enjoy every story, and each one build on previous stories to add layers, richness, metatextuality, and depth
– the metatextual elements were of course a big draw, and the novel’s engagement with metafiction, surreality, horror was satisfying to me. A lot of analysis went into this book and there is a lot to get out of it, if you wish to do so.
– the writing is lovely. Maybe this goes without saying in a Vandermeer book but on the other hand, good writing is always worth singing praises for.
– the humor really appealed to me. I’ve highlighted one particular chapter where the insulting tone of the narrator had me laughing out loud.
– it’s just so *complete* as a book. The worldbuilding is breathtaking, the scale and depth and layers to it. As someone who is a weak, half-assed worldbuilder, I was duly impressed, and (I hope) I learned a lot from this read. Ambergris feels very real, both present and distant, both fantastical and believable. That in itself is a lovely achievement
– It kept me very interested and engaged despite, as I said before, this not being quiiite the type of book I usually enjoy. Nice to push the boundaries, of course.