The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

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The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Something heinous might still remain in Bookholm – an authorly self-indulgence and lack of editing that one never saw as anything like a problem before in Moers' books.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 432 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 9780099578260

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It's been two hundred years since Optimus Yarnspinner last went to the great literary city of Bookholm, where people trawled underground hells for classic works of Zamonian literature, and our hero had an almighty, Odyssey-like journey through the nether regions. He would not have ever expected to return, except for a very intriguing letter he receives one day in his authorly garret. It contains such mystery, including the idea that he wrote it to himself, to force him to journey back to Bookholm – a Bookholm completely rebuilt after the ending of the last novel. The city is much more advanced, the subterranean areas seemingly more at peace – yet something is definitely afoot.

It's always a pleasure to see another Moers book on the pile in front of you. Ever since the first intrigued me with its promise of quirky cult-dom I've been present (if not correct) every time. If you're new to these shores – welcome, for they are nothing if not friendly. Please expect the books to be like nothing else you have ever read – a children's literature sensibility (and equivalent illustrations) thrust on a large, sincere, adult-friendly volume; a weird positioning halfway between fantasy and straight storytelling that will have the power to both capture and confound both camps; and an unavoidable feeling that these hysterically weird and well-developed worlds should be saying something to us other than the sheer plot they convey with no parallels to or morals for our own.

Always a pleasure – until now… It's really quite disappointing to see how laborious and ineffectual and self-indulgent the writing can be here, in patches. I did laugh at Yarnspinner's character just as I was supposed to – when mourning what he thinks is a wasted journey he says to himself even though my social contacts were still limited, I had at least trampled on a dwarf!, which – in context at least – is richly entertaining. I was engaged with the playfulness of the world-building, and really wish I could have been to see Waiting for Yogibears by someone called Beula Smeckett (work it out). I loved the way inventions such as living newspapers and alien species caused changes in font, typography and more just like in the fun, youthful books this shares DNA with. But…

While the return to Bookholm and the mysterious changes to the city – a city already so utterly fully-formed any changes can come across as vividly as those to your own hometown – should have allowed for a brilliant plot, here there was very little in that regard. Once more Moers peppers his storytelling with digressions into other tales, and other aspects of the world, but for once you don't relish this. Optimus being as cultured as he is, and responsible for such a diverse oeuvre as his, offers us his notebooks on one aspect of Bookholm life, and we even get a note attached saying we can skip that part. Never before would we ever have countenanced such a thing, and yet never before would that have seemed valid. Never before now, either, would it not be the only time we would wish to jump ahead.

The merits of Moers' unique approach to his books are still evident here, and the sheer joy in the invention does come to us in flashes. But the whole thing is exemplified by one large scene, which is a bizarre revisit of the first Dreaming Books novel. It adds to the sense of Bookholm as being some fantasy world's cultural headquarters – a depository of all you think of when you imagine a steampunk Stratford, the National Theatre, Bloomsbury and every area known to publishing kind all in one – but it doesn't exactly go anywhere as regards furthering the plot. And it more or less ends at the two-thirds mark. Before now we've already realised that we are not going anywhere fast – or fast enough, and the conclusion here will not be anything like as full as we would wish. And indeed it isn't, for this is but the first of two companion sequels to what's gone before.

And I so wish it wasn't. Yes, Moers books are large, and slightly cumbersome to hold for some people, but that's always been forgiven due to the depth of the world. Here we're already sold – we've probably read City of… and don't need such intricate guidance. I can see why Moers wants to do what he has and I will allow him many indulgences, but the fact remains that this didn't really need to be part one. Where was his editor to push for concision and enough for just one, albeit huge, title? Where was the publisher with the clout to say Moers couldn't have his way, and squeeze it into two covers and not four? (Think back to how 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami was recently three volumes published as two in hardback, and all in one in paperback.)

This, then, is a major misfire from one of my favourites. He has such a fabulous invention in Zamonia, and with the remaining thirteen and a half adventures of his first lead character to capture some time we can always cry out for sequels to his books. But here, this just can't be judged – and certainly not given an accurate star rating – because it is nowhere near complete. The thought we will have a real, proper story with part two as well is tampered by the time each book takes to reach us. The set-up here is one to make us want that – as long as it gets down and does what it needs to and doesn't fiddle-faddle as here. Out of all the brilliant ideas on these pages, the greatest remains that we have been sold a lemon, and passed off with what is so easily passed over.

I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.

You would be much better off with one of the more self-contained (and concise) books from this world, such as The Alchemaster's Apprentice. Seeing as so much of this volume was theatrical, I would also mention The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett for those who thought fantasy books couldn't be about the performing arts.

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