- Paperback: 352 pages
- Publisher: Titan Books (April 8, 2014)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1781169462
- ISBN-13: 978-1781169469
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #642,771 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Islanders Paperback – April 8, 2014
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About the Author
Christopher Priest is a contemporary novelist and a leading figure in modern SF and fantasy. His novel The Islanders won both the BSFA Award and the John W. Campbell Award. The Separation won both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the BSFA Award.
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Top customer reviews
It's short vignettes that I can only assume must eventually resolve into a story. (I couldn't finish it)
The premise: Priest's mind-bending book is about an imaginary grouping of islands, the Dream Archipelago, located in the Midway Sea that separates two larger land masses. At the outset, the islands seem like a hunky-dory Switzerland-like zone. The islands are peaceful and independent, having signed a historic and binding Covenant that is revered like the Magna Carta. Most importantly, the agreement assures the islands' neutrality in international affairs and protects the Archipelago from the warring shenanigans of their landlocked neighbors to the north. But this is a strange and contradictory novel and even the Covenant can't stop the more insidious forms of turmoil that emerge. And there are lots.
The book is made up of thirty or so sections that alternate between oddball travelogue profiles of the various islands—flora and fauna, climate, best times to visit, the currency used, etc.—and short stories that introduce us to several of the island natives. These characters include: a mime performer named Commis who is the victim in what may have been murder or a horrible accident; a Banksy-like guerilla artist named Jordenn Yo who turns mountain bedrock into giant art installations; Esla Caurer, a social reformer who later becomes canonized by some locals for allegedly performing miracles—of which she strangely has no knowledge and denies; Esphoven Muy, a kind of philosopher-meteorologist who categories the various winds that blow over the area; Chaster Kammeston, author of the book's Foreword and a reclusive novelist who appears later in the book and may or may not be involved in the aforementioned murder (or is it his lookalike brother?!); and Dryd Bathurst, a handsome charismatic landscape painter and portrait artist.
The trickiest part about reading The Islanders is trying to sift through these profiles and characters to find *the* story. This is an novel after all, if a nonlinear, fragmented one. One narrative thread that emerges early on is the account of a gruesome but mysterious death. It is first shown via a transcript of a confession from a man who allegedly committed the violent act. The man is later convicted and executed. We learn more about the victim from a first-hand account of a student who was working in the theater where the incident took place. Later another story reveals that the student wasn't who he said he was. And so on. Priest shows us these puzzle pieces, and then turns around and casts doubt on the pieces we've put together. We learn more but know less. Tricksy.
The archipelago setting alone gives us the contradictory notions of isolation and interconnectedness. (Are all men islands, or is no man an island, as John Donne argued?) Account after account, we see that the characters themselves are their own inscrutable island chains. They are emotionally isolated and yet hyper aware of others around them. On the island of Meequa, a cartographer goes down to the beach every night and looks out across a shallow strait, toward a smaller island called Tremm. Her boyfriend who worked on Tremm has disappeared. To complicate matters, Tremm is off-limits, having been requisitioned by one of the mainland militaries. (So much for the Covenant!) The pairings—both Meequa/Trem and the couple—become a metaphor for the fractured relationships throughout the book. Adding to this freaky mix, there are frequent references to doubles and secret identities. Characters end up having lookalikes, or they lie about who they said they were. This 'twining' effect is reinforced in the way the islands always have two names (an official name and the patois name or local name) and in the way different island grouping have similar locations (example: The Torquis island group, located at coordinates 44N - 49N and 23W - 27W, is a mirror of the Torquils island group, located at 23S - 27S and 44E - 49E).
See, Twilight Zone, didn't I tell you?
Priest is a science fiction author who is widely known for books that play with illusion and unreliability. Like the illusionists in his earlier work The Prestige, Priest is a cunning underminer of assumptions and conditions. The Islanders thrills by throwing you off balance in the same way. It's an icy burn of a read but not a slog. The book is simply told (the prose is quite flat actually), yet complex in concept and structure, full of shifting shadows and smoke and mirrors. Something deep and seismic is going on here. Even now I'm not sure what it is exactly but I know it's there. So don't think too hard when you read this book (though you probably will). When you arrive on the islands, toss out your compass and enjoy the tour.
The Islanders is...not necessarily fantasy, and (largely) only sci-fi by implication. But this travelogue for a place that will never exist is endlessly engaging, and enthralling. Characters are developed across its entries. Concepts are explored over great distances, often with many pages between them. Threads are woven, and picked up much, much later. But it is never confusing. Christopher Priest wisely ensures it can be read, comfortably, from page 1-484.
While it may not be to everyone's taste, I overwhelmingly enjoyed it. For other authors, there's much to learn about worldbuilding, and weaving it into your fiction.