I first came across this book at a Barnes and Noble (typical, I know), where I picked it up out of leisurely curiosity to examine the summary on the back cover. While I was interested at first sight, my lack of funds meant that I would promptly forget about it for a few years. At a friend’s recommendation, however, I considered it a second time. She sold me on it after telling me that it was similar to her impressions of Terry Pratchett’s works.
Other than the fact that it’s set in a city, The City of Dreaming Books is nothing like Discworld. That isn’t a bad thing. If Bookholm, the city that the title refers to, were real, I would most likely want to visit. Everything about it is a reader’s (and an explorer’s) dream come true. There are hidden adventures, treasures just waiting to be discovered, gorgeous cafes, and denizens of all shapes and sizes that give the city a strange and wonderful vitality. It all contributes to a detailed and extensive show of worldbuilding that just keeps getting better the further you go.
In the midst of these endlessly creative scenes, readers get an unexpected glimpse into the publishing industry. The representatives of Bookholm’s central business, the book business, demonstrate the many ways publishers and authors alike view the written word. The city is humming with activity–Bookholm’s citizens have made books the center of their lives, and it shows with each new character we encounter. Each denizen approaches reading in an entirely different way. Some eschew fictional works, while others focus entirely on poetry or niche historical works. One or two characters in particular view all books indiscriminately, or only pay attention to their price tags. This is important later on.
All of the little details about the city of Bookholm, as well as the hidden underworld below it, gives a sense of exploration that’s hard to find elsewhere. The narrator, who moves through each fantastic environment, conveys this wonderful sense of adventure as he navigates it. If the places described here were real, I’d be packing my bags in a heartbeat.
From the first page, I loved the flow and language that the author uses. There’s this rich use of vocabulary that longtime readers can easily appreciate. What’s most surprising about this is the fact that the entire book has been translated in to English from the original German. Even after the translation, it doesn’t feel like any of the original imaginative language was lost. I’ll admit, as someone who has studied German for six years now, I’m tempted to read it in its original form.
“Where shadows dim with shadows mate,
in caverns deep and dark.
Where old books dream of bygone days,
when they were wood and bark…”
The City of Dreaming Books is framed as an excerpt of the main character’s autobiography, written at a later point in his life. Translator’s footnotes show readers that its original language was Zamonian, which is apparently so dense and complicated that the publisher could only afford to put forth a small section of the full text. There are some other interesting explanations in the footnotes, too. I have no idea how much the currency is actually worth, but I can tell you that its closest parallel is from a specific period of Ancient Roman history. Zamonia has history of its own, as well, and you can find it all in the footnotes.
Some of the information about Zamonia has hidden meanings, if readers look closely. The famous authors that the main character, Optimus Yarnspinner, rattles off so regularly are actually anagrams taken from real writers’ names. Those who are familiar with classic poems or passages from famous books may also catch their Zamonian parallels as Optimus comes across them.
There are illustrations throughout the book, and I loved them. You don’t typically get pictures to accompany the text after a certain point, and while it isn’t always something a book needs, it’s something that I can appreciate. The illustrations here paired nicely with the often otherworldly imagery, and the visuals drew together the details found within the text very nicely.
While The City of Dreaming Books boasts some colorful imagery and the promise of adventure in endless shelves of books, the author does not shy way from describing the danger that comes with it. When I read some sections that featured insanity-fueled suicide, or murder with a side of potential cannibalism, I had to take a step back and wonder, surprised and a bit confused, “who is the target audience here?” (Hint: it’s young adults)
I was also not quite sold on one major plot twist regarding the mysterious Shadow King. The elements of body horror, as well as the reasons for them, didn’t seem to be completely, realistically motivated in my eyes. Instead, it felt shocking without purpose or reason.
Also, where are all of the female characters? I only remember one or two major female characters in this entire story. It made me wonder why they’re so uncommon, if anything is possible in a land as strange and wild as Zamonia.
Don’t let the downsides dissuade you, though. The City of Dreaming Books brings to the table characters and elements that are certainly worth a few downsides. I look forward to reading its sequel, The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books, and continuing to explore the crazy, wonderful world that Moers has created.
If you enjoyed this, try:
Terry Pratchett: Men at Arms
Walter Moers: The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books
Terry Pratchett: The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Clive Barker: Abarat