Optimus Yarnspinner, a young Zamonian writer, inherits very little from his beloved godfather apart from an unpublished short story by an unknown author. This manuscript proves to be such a superb piece of writing that he can’t resist the temptation to investigate the mystery surrounding the author’s identity. The trail takes him to the City of Dreaming Books.
After falling under the spell of the book-obsessed metropolis, Yarnspinner also falls into the clutches of its evil genius, Pfistomel Smyke, who treacherously maroons him in the city’s labyrinthine catacombs. He finds himself in a subterranean world where reading books can be genuinely dangerous, where ruthless Bookhunters fight to the death for literary gems and the mysterious Shadow King rules a murky realm populated by Booklings, one-eyed beings whose vast library includes live books equipped with teeth and claws.
Walter Moers transports us to a magical world where reading is still a genuine adventure, where books can not only entertain people but also drive them insane or kill them. Only those intrepid souls who are prepared to join Yarnspinner on his perilous journey should read this book. We wish the rest of you a long, safe, unutterably dull and boring life!
Constant Reader, if, after reading that, you are not immediately possessed by an urge to run to your nearest bookshop and buy a copy RIGHT AWAY, then I seriously doubt your book-loving credentials. A fantasy about a bibliophilic city filled with dangerous bookish creatures? Why wouldn’t you want it?
Possibly inevitably, given the sheer awesomeness of the premise and blurb, The City of Dreaming Books was actually something of a disappointment. It’s a fun story, yes, a sort of cross between Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and the Edge Chronicles, filled with imaginative creatures, wild rides through the book-infested catacombs, dastardly deeds and what may well be one of my favourite ever fictional cities. There are some lovely black-and-white drawings by the author which are creepy and animated and awesome, and deciphering the anagrams of famous authors (Aleisha Wimpersleake = William Shakespeare) makes for a happy half-hour or so.
It’s just that the actual writing leaves something to be desired. The characterisation is unconvincing at best, and at worst involves last-minute introductions of hitherto unmentioned traits apparently designed to make the story more exciting. There are a couple of deeply unsatisfying dei ex machinae which bring about the denouement, and though the end is somewhat bittersweet in content the tone doesn’t really reflect that. I didn’t care about Yarnspinner and his artistic quest, and even the vaguely Frankensteinian Shadow King fell ultimately flat. (Although the Weeping Shadows were cool. I would have liked to see more of those.)
I’m also slightly troubled by the existence of a single, extremely minor, female character in an entire metropolis of different species (and she’s an ugly fortune-teller whom nobody takes seriously). Just…really? One female character? Bit rude.
The City of Dreaming Books features an awesome setting and a world rich and fascinating in its detail. It’s just that the execution is uninteresting (possibly because Moers’ day job is a cartoonist, although he’s written three other novels) and actually a little hackneyed.