Water Moers
Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher
Piper, 2006
478 pages, trade paperback
ISBN 978-3-492-24688-0
Reviewed by Gary McGath
Copyright 2008 by Gary McGath

Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher is a fantasy novel unlike any I've seen in English-language literature. Far removed from the traditions of high fantasy and urban fantasy, it presents a strange, colorful world. It's the best-known of several novels Moers has written about the land of Zamonia, a world inhabited by many different kinds of intelligent beings, with humans as a small minority. Alternately humorous and melodramatic, it's extremely colorful. The novel is full of wordplay; I understand it's been translated into English, but a lot must have been lost in the translation. It's like trying to translate Alice in Wonderland into a foreign language. My German is just barely up to reading the book, and I'm sure I missed nine-tenths of the jokes.

The narrator and main character, Hildegund von Mythenmetz, is a dinosaur just out of his apprenticeship as a poet. His poet-godfather (Dichtpate), Danzelot, has given him a quest from his deathbed; Danzelot has a manuscript from an unknown writer which is so astonishingly well-written that it sends any writer who reads it into deep depression from feelings of inferiority. The only person who reads it and is unmoved by it is a literary agent. Hildegund must go to Buchhaim, the City of Dreaming Books of the title, and locate this writer with no clues beyond the manuscript itself.

Buchhaim is a city in which books are everything. Virtually everyone there is involved in writing, publishing, printing, or selling books. In a city like this, a manuscript that could revolutionize Zamonia's literary world is no small matter, and Hildegund soon finds himself up against powerful enemies. He is thrust into the underground labyrinths of Buchhaim, which are larger than the surface city, and encounters all kinds of dangers and wonders. There are the murderous Book Hunters, the strange Booklings, and the mysterious and feared Shadow King. There are poisoned books, living books, literally addictive books. There is even a creepy underground castle with shifting walls, made entirely out of books.

The characters have wonderfully colorful names: Colophonius Regenschein, Phistomefel Smeik, and so on. Some are anagrams: Ohjann Golgo van Fontheweg (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), Perla La Gadeon (Edgar Allan Poe), Woski Ejstod (Dostojewski, the German spelling of Dostoyevsky), and probably fifty others that I couldn't decipher. The name Rongkong Coma appears to be a play on Ronkonkoma, a village in the state of New York!

There is adventure, loyalty, and betrayal. The one thing which there isn't is the slightest hint of romance or sex; for all that I can tell, the inhabitants of Zamonia reproduce asexually. There isn't a single clearly female character. It doesn't really hurt the story, since it's set in a completely non-human realm, but it's the most asexual novel I've read since Flatland.

I should really be writing this review in German, or at least translate it into German, since anyone who can't read the language has to settle for the English translation of the book, which I'm sure can't be as good. But it's still good to know what kind of original science fiction and fantasy writing is going on in non-English-speaking countries. Germany doesn't have a large market for original fantastic literature, but the stuff which a few writers, such as Eschbach and Moers, are doing is well worth knowing about.
This review last revised on February 13, 2009

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