Optimus Yarnspinner—the future greatest author of Zamonia and also a giant lizard—has inherited the most perfect short story in the world from his godfather and tutor in the literary arts. Astonished by the caliber of the story, as well as its anonymous author who has been missing for decades, Optimus sets off to Bookholm, the City of Dreaming Books, and learn from him the secrets of fine writing.
What follows this prologue is the best (and the shortest) introduction to Walter Moers's wonderfully bizarre Zamonia series currently available in English. Zamonia is perhaps best known for Captain Bluebear, Moers's iconic children's character whose autobiography The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear introduces the world of Zamonia, but given that the book weighs in at 800 pages of densely verbose text interrupted by pictures, it can be extremely intimidating unless you're absolutely sure you'll like it. The City of Dreaming Books, by comparison, is positively short at 450 pages and is considerably more focused.
Optimus's adventures in Bookholm in search of his mystery author take him a number of places, most notably to the shop of Pfistomel Smyke, a shady used bookseller who seems to have a promising lead. But Smyke tricks Optimus and strands him in the underground book catacombs, a dangerous realm filled with trapped books, rare book hunters prepared to kill to prevent others from taking their books, and a terrifying being deep beneath the surface known only as the Shadow King.
The brilliance of The City of Dreaming Books (and Moers's other novels) is that it is clearly a book written by a highly intelligent, learned, and thoughtful author, but it remains eminently accessible and entertaining throughout. It's a metafiction about books and reading, but refigured into a fantasy adventure novel. It keeps the book from feeling excessively narrow and inaccessible to readers not as interested in metafiction (or who might feel that an overtly metafictional gambit would be pompous and pretentious), without really compromising the capacity for thoughtful readers to draw a great deal more from it. The illustrations go a long way to keeping it accessible as well; Moers is a cartoonist, and The City of Dreaming Books is heavily illustrated with drawings of the characters and the places they visit.
I loved The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear when I read it years ago (and immediately passed it off to my brother, who devoured it whole and begged for more), but The City of Dreaming Books is one of those few books that seem to have this otherworldly sense about what exactly I love in stories, and delivered on it wholesale.