Thursday, June 20, 2013

Book Review: The City of Dreaming Books

Sometimes there are books that are hard to categorise, that sort of sit in a genre, but aren't really part of that genre in terms of what springs to mind when you mention it. So when I say that the Zamonia series by Walter Moers is fantasy, it certainly is, but at the same time modern fantasy feels defined by grim-dark blood'n'guts epics, not otherworldly, multi-species'd metaphors running off with their own skewed sense of reality. It's Fantastic Fantasy, something that seems a little of fashion at the moment, at least in Anglophone Fantasy circles, which is a shame, because Zamonia is a fun place to hang out. The fourth in the series (although they all stand alone) is The City of Dreaming Books, and somewhat unsurprisingly, it's all about the power of stories and the pains of writing them. 

Young Optimus Yarnspinner is a Lindworm, a Dinosauroid of Lindworm Castle and born into a race of natural writers. Struggling to find his authorial voice, he is bequeathed a strange fragment of writing which appears to be perfect, and so he sets out to the semi-mythical Bookholm to find the writer, a city build on an ancient and vast Labyrinth of Literature, and fraught with many perils to life and sanity. He encounters the terrifying BookHunters, dangerous Toxictomes (living, poisonous books) and the dreaded, feared, Shadow King. 

Like the other Zamonian books, The City of Dreaming Books is a meandering shaggy dog story of a novel, where our hero wanders seemingly at random from event to perilous event, before it all starts to slot neatly together at the end. At times it can feel infuriatingly unfocused, ideas buzzing around only to be discarded, and its a book with many roads not travelled in terms of where its narrative goes. If I was feeling really critical, I'd have to say it also tends to lack much in the way of narrative drive, but actually I quite like a narrative ramble on occasion, and this is certainly what you get here. 

It's also resolutely about stuff, underneath its markedly fantastic setting. There is no attempt to be "realistic" here, theres creatures in the best Alice in Wonderland sort of vein, and fairy-tale logic rules the day. The closest Anglophone writer I can think of is Pratchett, but Moers wants to populate his world with fantastic beasties as well as impossible sights, and whilst it may not be to everyones tastes, it certainly adds a tonal diversity to anyones stack of Fantasy Novels.