by Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted September 25, 2020
1. City of Saints and Madmen / 2. Shriek: An Afterword / 3. Finch
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Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris will be published December 1. It is an omnibus volume containing three previously published books, at least the first of which has had several editions. The first part, City of Saints and Madmen, is a collection of stories of various lengths, originally released in 2001, with a revised and expanded version the following year, then another in '04. The second edition included an untitled story printed on the dustcover jacket, which incorporated VanderMeer's name and the collection's title in the text toward the bottom of the front cover. As far as I know, that is the only place that story ever appeared. There was also a UK edition, but I'm not sure how that compared to any of the others. The original was a finalist for a Locus Award for Best Collection in 2002, and the revised edition nabbed nominations for the World Fantasy Award, and SF Site's Reader's Poll for '03. SF Site is similar to Locus, featuring genre news, reviews, and critical essays. They previously had also hosted official web pages for many writers, but that was suspended several years ago, and the last reader's poll was in 2013.
I've had a trade paperback of City for at least a couple of years, but had not read it yet. Edelweiss offered an ARC of the new omnibus, so I figured it was time. Thinking there might be even more revisions, I started reading the ARC on my Kindle, but switched back to the paperback for one section in order to read the many (more than 125) footnotes at the bottom of the pages, which were held to the end of that section in the e-book. More on that later. The cover images below are from earlier trade paperbacks, City being the 2004 revised version that I have, and the others are what I would have if I had purchased them in print on first publication. City and Shriek are still available from various sources, maybe even new, although they're technically not still in print. Finch has been out of print for several years, with used copies fetching fairly high prices. I'm providing Bookshop and Amazon links only for the new omnibus; I'll leave it to the reader to search out earlier editions on their own if they wish. I'll explain why you might want to do that for the first book at least. Using the links provided will tag your search to our affiliate accounts, so we may earn a commission even for used copies.
The original collection included four novellas, with an introduction by Michael Moorcock, but not having seen that edition I'm not sure if it included the Ambergris Glossary. The revised edition added an appendix which doubled the page count, the glossary coming at the end. In addition to its award nominations as a collection, at least four of the stories received recognition on their own. I've searched for more information concerning prior publication, and it seems most were either self-published, or in small press publications.
It's difficult to decide how to categorize this book. It is a fantasy in the sense it takes place in a fictional city, in an alternate world, although it could be another planet. If it is supposed to be Earth, it's in an alternate dimension, since descriptions of the continents are distinctly different. It's somewhat like a hallucinatory dream, and since mushrooms play a major part you might suspect the author indulged in some potent 'shrooms himself, which led to visions of the mythical Ambergris. We get a history of the city in the second section, "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris" by Duncan Shriek. Hoegbotton & Sons is a import/export dealer, and a publisher of travel guides. Ambergris is a secretion of sperm whales traditionally used in perfumery, and some coveted it as an aphrodisiac. The city that bears that name sits on land stolen from the "gray caps," the mushroom dwellers of Cinsorium, although it is possible that word might ought to have been spelled Sensorium.
Ambergris's founder was John Manzikert, a whaling captain who moved north from the Southern Seas into the River Moth, due to both volcanic activity in the south, and his conflicts with a rival captain, Michael Brueghel. After killing many of the gray caps and establishing his domain, Manzikert's title morphed into Cappan, and all of his successors used that title as well. The expoits of Manzikert, and his sons and other family that succeeded him, include the era known as The Silence, several generations removed from the original colonization. The Cappan and his soldiers went on a military campaign against another city, and when they returned Ambergris was empty. Unbeknownst to the Cappan, his wife had taken her retinue north on a hunting expedition, and when she returned her husband had gone underground thinking the mushroom dwellers had kidnapped rather than killed the citizenry. A little of both actually. When he resurfaces, he declares the gray caps a protected group, which leads everyone else to consider him mad, possibly even a doppelganger. The history is the part I read in the paperback, mainly due to the many footnotes, which are at least as long as the history itself. There are a lot of contradictions and misdirection in the footnotes, and comical asides, enough that they reminded me of another comical history, Will Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. In the ARC the footnotes came at the end of this section, and were followed by the glossary, which was the very last part of the paperback's appendix.
The first story is "Dradin, in Love" from 1996, a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Dradin is a missionary who had suffered from a jungle fever, then when recovered he travels to Ambergris to consult with his mentor, Cadimon Signal, with the intention of seeking another position. Signal had taught him at the Morrow Religious Institute; Morrow is a city to the south of Ambergris. Several of the names of people and places sound British, or maybe American (another town is Stockton), but there are others that sound Asian. Another town is Nicea, which in our world was in what today is Turkey. Some descriptions made me think it was similar to Southeast Asia, others possibly Africa or South America, but as I said before, this is an alternate world. Dradin falls in love at first sight, with a woman he sees in a third story window of Hoegbotton & Sons. He is shy, and gullible, so he allows a dwarf he meets on the street to take messages to her, to arrange a meeting. He is appalled, but also should have been made wary and skeptical, when the dwarf asks him if he wants to buy her. I was, and it gave me a clue as to the nature of the woman, which later proved to be mostly accurate. Along with his romantic pursuit of a woman only glanced from afar, the story delves into other aspects of Ambergris: the mushroom dwellers, who are still around and live underground; Voss Bender, a writer/composer who later moves into politics, and is mentioned in several of the stories. Dradin is also mentioned briefly in a later story. Some of Dradin's experiences could be explained as hallucinations brought on by inhaling fungal spores while lost in the city, and his last actions might indicate he's gone a little mad.
The other story that mentions Dradin is "The Transformation of Martin Lake," which won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novella in 2000. Lake is an artist, or at least wishes to be considered such, but one who had subsisted on meager commissions for several years. His fertile period blossomed after the death of Voss Bender, whom he had met on only one occasion. Bender figures prominently in his later paintings. Dradin had commissioned Lake for an artwork, although I can't recall now the nature of what he wanted, but I assume this story is set after the first. In addition to all the turmoil surrounding the death of Bender, who had been both wildly popular and vehemently reviled in life, this story is also a penetrating portrait of the artist, both before and after he found his muse. Parts of the story are Lake's experiences, others are excerpts of reviews of his later work, written by gallery owner and art critic Janice Shriek, sister of Duncan, the author of the History. A lot has been said about literary fiction, as if that's a genre unto itself. I think that's BS, since literary style can be, and has been, applied to almost every genre imaginable. And most definitely VanderMeer has employed it here. This is my favorite story from the collection, although a couple of others from the appendix come close.
The fourth story could be described as a meta parody. "The Strange Case of X" is written in both first and third person, the first from the perspective of an investigator interviewing a suspect identified only as X, who may or may not be VanderMeer himself. X talks about his early life in the Fiji Islands (VanderMeer lived there when his parents were in the Peace Corps), as well as previous experiences in Chicago, New York, and in Florida (where the author lives now). X says that he absolutely does not believe Ambergris exists, it's only a product of his imagination. Yet he is accused of a crime in Ambergris, which might also relate to something that occurred in the "real" world. The alternate explanation is that X is Sirin, a writer/editor, who might have been Duncan Shriek's editor. I need to re-read it to figure out who the investigator is. I've read only brief descriptions of Finch, but since he is a detective, maybe he's the interrogator here. Or maybe not, since Finch is set later in the sequence. Then again, I'm not sure of the chronological sequence of the stories. Of the three novellas (not counting the history), they seem to be in order, but others presented in the appendix come earlier, unless I'm mistaken.
Unless they are stealthily hidden in the ARC, and I haven't stumbled across them yet, quite a bit of the appendix that is in the paperback is not included in the ARC. Of the ones that are, the best is "The Cage." The version that appeared in the second edition was a finalist for the Southeastern Science Fiction Achievment Award. I think it's a novella too, approximately the same length as "The Strange Case of X." I'm sure it is set earlier than "Dradin, in Love." The protagonist of the story is Richard Hoegbotton, whose company already has "& Sons" in its name, even though he has yet to have children. Two things that point to this being much earlier in the sequence, in "Dradin" the company is in a building that has a least three floors, maybe more, whereas here it's only two. Hoegbotton either added on to his building or moved to another location. Also, while I would have thought more years had passed since The Silence, Richard Hoegbotton is only five generations removed from that event, just a bit more than a hundred years. In a room next to his office he has recreated the dining room of his great-great-grandfather, just as it was when he and his family disappeared. Hoegbotton & Sons is just in its beginning, with two other rival companies, which later are forced out of business. Richard began the business by purchasing items for resale, most often at estate sales. At one of them he acquires a large cage, apparently empty and covered with a cloth. Yet it is extremely heavy, and others remark they've heard noises coming from within, although it appears empty whenever he looks under the cover. Another hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness story, mainly dealing with the incursion of the mushroom dwellers, and the spread of fungal spores. I need to re-read this one too, in order to determine if I understand exactly what is happening at the end.
I have not read all of the paperback's appendix, and will hold off on that for a while. I did read a few things that are not in the ARC, unless they've been given another title, or incorporated into another chapter. The first entry in the appendix is "A Letter from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin," then later "A Note from Dr. V to Dr. Simpkin," which incorporates the short "The Man Who Had No Eyes." The latter is in the ARC. A lot of the appendix is random articles from various publications, the page counts unique to each segment and not continuous through the appendix, and some sections have no page numbers at all. Several are presented as if facsimiles out of books or newspapers, and in the case of the letters from Dr. V, direct from his own typewriter. Other than the glossary, the last entry in the appendix is "Learning to Leave the Flesh," considered a proto-Ambergris story. VanderMeer wrote it in 1992 at the Clarion Writer's Workshop, and it has only appeared in the 2004 paperback. Ambergris is not mentioned, but Albumuth Boulevard is, the major road through the center of Ambergris. Other than "The Cage," the longest section of the appendix is "King Squid," which includes multiple articles and illustrations about the freshwater squid common to the River Moth, which is the focus of a yearly celebration in Ambergris. I may read the rest of the appendix before moving on to the second part of the ARC, Shriek: An Afterword, but a few other books will come before that. One I should have already read is "X's Notes."
I realize this is more synopsis than review, but the basic thing I want to say is it's highly recommended. The prose is crisp and clear, even when the events it depicts are not. The emotions of all characters are vividly rendered, even peripheral characters. The atmosphere of Ambergris is palbable, whether in bright daylight, or oppressive spring rains, or the mysterious nighttime when the gray caps emerge to do their mischief. There is much I could have said, and I may add comments later to this section, as well as continue with the two novels. A lot of that would be more synopsis of course, such as Voss Bender, his operas, his political career, how he both inspired and outraged the citizens of Ambergris. Janice Shriek's descriptions of Martin Lake's paintings are a marvel all by themselves, even when she completely misses the point behind them. I know it won't appeal to everyone, and there might have been an earlier time I wouldn't have appreciated it as I do now. Yes, it's literary, but in the most positive way I could possibly use that term. Brilliant, dense and verbose at times, but utterly fascinating. I've had less positive things to say about a couple of recent VanderMeer books, but this wowed me just as much as the Southern Reach trilogy. When I finished that I was in acceptance mode, both for VanderMeer's talent, and the feeling I might never leave Area X. Right now I want to move to Ambergris.
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