I've been hearing a lot about Jeff Vandermeer lately. So why did I wait this long to give City of Saints and Madmen a shot? Simply because the buzz originated from sources that are notoriously outside the "mainstream" crowd. Very often, this means that we are dealing with a work which is not inherently accessible to the typical fantasy reader.
Reading City of Saints and Madmen is in many ways like visiting Tate Modern in London. Indeed, it's relatively impossible to decide whether what is found within each to be the expressions of unbelievably talented or deeply disturbed minds. Vandermeer certainly appears to enjoy walking the very fine line between the brilliant and the bizarre.
This novel is by far the oddest book I've read in years. And as such, it is not for everyone. The format may put off a number of readers. As a mosaic novel, City of Saints and Madmen is comprised of novellas and short stories. And although characters and events contained in one may appear or be alluded to in another, the book doesn't form a coherent whole. Speaking for myself, that was a bit of a problem. It seems the author doesn't want the reader to get comfortable. Which, ultimately, results in a somewhat constant disorientation.
In addition, Vandermeer's novellas and short stories are not consistent in tone and quality. For instance, while The Strange Case of X, The Cage and Learning to Leave the Flesh all show signs of brilliance, others such as King Squid border on the ridiculous. I mean, over 80 pages pertaining to squid lore and other information! As times good and at times totally absurd, the novel has its ups and downs.
One thing about Jeff Vandermeer is that he is a gifted writer. His terrific prose creates a living and breathing imagery. His style, at times almost lyrical, jumps off the page. And is dark sense of humor imbues each tale with a unique flavor.
City of Saints and Madmen is not for the average fantasy fan. But for jaded readers who have been around for a long time, Vandermeer's latest could be something special to sink your teeth into. Way too weird to ever be accessible to the masses, this author could nonetheless acquire a cult following. Only time will tell. . .
The final verdict: 7/10
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