Top critical review
Too much ambition
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on July 26, 2010
"The City of Saints and Madmen" makes big promises. It entreats the reader to follow along for a wild ride through the city of Ambergris as seen through the eyes of its citizens, and in this sense it delivers. One chapter of the book might be written as a historical document complete with footnotes and highbrow spats between competing historians, whereas another might take the form of a character-centric narrative; sometimes these writing styles are mixed and matched. The results vary in quality, but at the very least they are exceedingly well written and imaginative. I would be hard pressed, as a reader, to deny that some passages figuratively jumped out of the page, in all their colorful, terrifying, foul-smelling glory. The author really does make Ambergris come alive.
Or, rather, he makes a very, very small part of Ambergris come alive. Therein lies the problem with this book.
Ambergris is supposed to be a huge, sprawling city, but the author's vision of his own creation is so limited that the reader never gets to see much of it. The author describes the nigh-on-infinite amount of streets in the city, and yet we are only ever shown Albumuth Boulevard. Crowds of salesmen are described with little more than a passing glance, and yet the reader is forced to read about the famous store "Hoegbotton & Sons" once every few pages, as if it were the only shop in town (an aside: Hoegbotton & Sons produces what is apparently the only guidebook to Ambergris, and its pages seemingly contain the entire artistic production of every poet and painter to have ever worked there. This idea does not work as well as the author thinks it does). If I were to follow the book's descriptions closely, I might be lead to believe that the Religious Quarter is the only quarter in all of Ambergris, and that Voss Bender is the only musician to ever live and work there. Even the chapter on Ambergris' early history describes these same places and people, before they were created/born. More than once I found myself wishing that I could remind the author that there are other streets in his city.
This is not to say that these places are boring. On the contrary, the author describes Albumuth (and the Religious Quarter) with such vivid detail that their descriptions read like those of real places. The problem is just that, in the end, it leaves the reader unsatisfied and asking, "Is this it? Isn't there any more?"
It's a shame, really, because the other parts and people of the city seem under-described, and when they ARE described it is usually as a function of the same few reference points (e.g. "this house is south of the Religious Quarter"). It's excellent writing, but as a piece of work that attempts to paint a portrait of an entire city, it fails. Still, the storytelling is solid, if a bit predictable, and is guaranteed to spur the imagination for a while.