The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

Once upon a time there was a three foot tall Lindworm, named Optimus Yarnspinner…and we’re back in the fantastical word…er….world of Zamonia.

As the book begins, our protagonist’s “authorial godfather”, Dancelot Wordwright, dies after a suitably melodramatic deathbed scene in which he drops a lifetime’s worth of cryptic clues, obscure hints, symbolic digressions, and more than a few literary suggestions. Optimus inherits all of Dancelot’s possessions, chiefly among them the ten-page manuscript for a short story of impossible beauty, and shortly thereafter heads out for Bookholm, city of books, to track down the author of same. Above ground, the city is a book lover’s heaven: Bookholm is dedicated solely to books, literature and the enjoyment and promulgation thereof. There is, however, a seed of destruction germinating here…well, obviously, or we wouldn’t have much of a book, now would we? Underneath the city lies a vast network of catacombs, in which are stored more books than a librarian can dream of…but the labyrinth is populated by a host of unpleasant creatures such as harpyrs and spinxxxxes1, not to mention the Bookhunters, the only people brave enough to descend in search of books.

Optimus first tries to show the manuscript to Inazia Anazazi, an Uggling, and Ahmed ben Kibitzer, Nocturnomath book shop owner, who panics upon reading it and hastily thrusts Optimus out into the street, giving him a properly cryptic “gypsy’s warning’. A chance encounter with one Claudio Harpstick in a greasy spoon diner sends Optimus off to seek out Pfistomel Smyke, a particularly knowledgeable antiquarian book dealer. The two are in cahoots, however, and Harpstick and Smyke trick our protagonist into reading a drugged book, and dispose of him in the Catacombs, an underground maze of near-impossible complexity. The creatures he meets in the catacombs are as varied, both in appearance and temperament, as the creatures aboveground, but chief among the residents are the Ferocious Booklings, each of which memorizes the works of a specific author, whose names they take.

Alas, the Bookhunters track down the Booklings’ library, and put it to the torch. Optimus flees, only to fall into the clutches of the Shadow King, a dread yet mysteriously undescribed creature whose presence in the catacombs prompts many tales. Inasmuch as there’s now one sequel with the probability of another, I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that the book ends with Optimius fleeing the burning Bookholm. I’m not, however, going to reveal anything more about the Shadow King.

What to read next? Ordinarily, I’d suggest other books about books, such as The Name of the Rose and Shadow of the Wind. Moers’ books are so playful where those two are serious, though; Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Rhymes books might be a better match, though even they aren’t quite so fantastical as The City of Dreaming Books. This is very much a book lover’s book—Moers scattered fictitious authors throughout this book whose names are anagrams of authors here in the real world: Aleisha Wimpersleake, Wamilli Swordthrow, Elo Slootty, Rasco Elwid, Melvin Hermalle, Gramerta Climelth, Asdrel Chickens, Daurdry Pilgink and so on.

It’s a fun book, probably intended for adults but perfectly appropriate for kids.

1“Spinxxxx” is Moer’s transliteration of the Zamonian name for a sixteen-legged spiderlike creature; the Zamonian language has a specific letter used in names for creatures that have more than eight legs. Unfortunately, neither English or German are so similarly endowed, so using four x’s is the best our author can do2
2I forgot to mention that one of the things I found so amusing about both this and “Captain Bluebear” is the plethora of discursive footnotes. If other readers also found this similarly amusing, they might want to try John Connolly’s The Gates and The Infernals


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