Review: The City of Dreaming Books

September 24, 2007

Book Review This is where my review begins. Walter Moers is truly possessed of the Orm, that mysterious connection with a higher literary plane which distinguishes transcendental writing from quotidian prose.

How does someone, anyone come up with an idea so unlikely but which comes off so spectacularly? The setting for The City of Dreaming Books, my dear readers, is the fantasy world of Zamonia, but the book is not a fairy tale. The main protagonist and narrator is an author named Optimus Yarnspinner, a Lindworm (a dinosaur, basically) from Lindworm Castle, but the book is not really for children. If you do not have a knowledge of and interest in books, literature, literary forms, literary devices, authors or the world of publishing, much of this book will be lost on you. But then, you would not be a reader at all, dear or otherwise, if you had no interest in books.

The eponymous city is Bookholm, where Optimus travels in search of the author of a manuscript, given to him by his late authorial godfather, which no-one can read without being taken on a journey of joy and fulfilment no other written work could hope to engender. An author who has found the legendary Orm.

Bookholm is a city of authors, publishers, antiquarian booksellers, literary agents and critics. A place where aspiring authors go to seek their fame and fortune, but where failure could condemn them to the poets’ graveyard, to dwell in fetid holes in the ground and earn a pittance writing ditties and odes for passing tourists.

At Bookholm Optimus meets representatives of Zamonia’s diverse species such as Nocturnomaths, Ugglies, Hogglings, Shark Grubs and Vulpheads. He learns about the Golden List of valuable books and the armed, armoured and dangerous Bookhunters who scour the labyrinthine catacombs below Bookholm in search of rare and ancient first editions that will make them wealthy beyond measure; of the most famous Bookhunter of them all, Colophonius Regenschein, who is presumed lost in the catacombs, a victim of the rumoured but unseen Shadow King who rules the vast complex of subterranean caverns.

It is to the catacombs that the story takes the ingenuous Optimus, to a series of encounters with Hazardous books, Bookhunters, Booklings in their Leather Grotto and finally Shadowhall where he is presented with the opportunity to acquire the Orm himself.

What stuns me most of all about this book is that Walters Moers’ original was written in German. (Officially, Moers was himself merely the translator of the real original text, by Yarnspinner, from Zamonian into German). All the same, that it could have ended up in English without the merest hint that it had ever been in any other language is as much a testament to the extraordinary ingenuity and skill of the English translator (John Brownjohn) as the book itself is to the creative talent of Moers. I think the Orm must have a permanent residence in both of them.

The City of Dreaming Books

You can take The City of Dreaming Books in many ways; a fantasy for the not so young, a witty parody on the literary world and the sorts of people who inhabit it, a playful treatise on literary tricks and devices, an exercise in getting your readers to identify with an innocent but plucky dinosaur with authorial pretensions or just a deeply charming and enjoyable book to fall in love with. Moers is cartoonist as well as writer, and his distinctive illustrations help bring the quirky denizens of Bookholm to life.

This is a book like no other I can begin to compare it to, except maybe some of Moers’ other works. He is on his own and if only one author can lay claim to the Orm, my money is on Walter, dear readers. But now this is where my review ends.




  1. I *love* this book. It caught my attention in the public library for the first time, however I didn’t take it then… A week later I come back and there it was. Waiting for me.

    But obviously, I bought it soon xD And I totally agree with you: Moers have the Orm, as well as the translators. Spanish translation is awesome, all the invented words seems so logical…

    Searching some English reviews about this book has been funny, trying to guess the translation of the proper nouns. I like it! ^^

    PS: Oh, if you have doubts, the anagrams of authors’ names are in English Wikipedia 😉

  2. iPhone killer! yes! yes! yes!

  3. Goodness! Good question. I worked a number out at the time but there were many more I didn’t fathom. The book itself has been lent out and I’m not sure where it is. Not seen it in months.

    My son has the German original but I think the anagrams for the English version were recreated by John Brownjohn in the spirit of the original but quite different.

    It’s my son I have to thank for finding the book. He was in Berlin for a year as part of a 4 year university degree course, bought the book in German, fell in love with it and bought us the English version.

    Sorry I can’t be of any more help.

  4. I’m wondering if anyone you know has had the energy to unscramble the anagrams of authors’ names. I’ve caught several of them, but there are so many! Makes you stand in awe at the vast numbers of recognized authors (who presumably have attained the Orm) over time and space. How many could you unscramble?

    I realize you read this many months ago — just wondering.

  5. […] of the charms of the book is that it can be read at several levels as this review at Hasta la vista, Vista notes: You can take The City of Dreaming Books in many ways; a fantasy for the not so young, a witty […]

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