Every once in a while there comes a book I feel absolutely unqualified to review. The latest of these is Christopher Priest’s (of The Prestige fame) newest book, The Islanders. Having not read anything from Priest in the past, I was both tentative and truly excited to dig in. What I was met with is a piece of fiction so vibrant, subtle, passionate and so damn clever it made me feel inadequate. But in a good way. The kind of way where I’m more than happy to reduced to a state of primal awe at an artist’s expression of his thoughts on themes and topics equally diverse and important, and do so intelligently, gracefully without sacrificing readability. For a first experience, Priest sure knows how to impress.
The Islanders is a tale of murder, artistic rivalry and literary trickery; a chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems; a narrator whose agenda is artful and subtle; a narrative that pulls you in and plays an elegant game with you.
The Dream Archipelago is a vast network of islands. The names of the islands are different depending on who you talk to, their very locations seem to twist and shift. Some islands have been sculpted into vast musical instruments, others are home to lethal creatures, others the playground of high society. Hot winds blow across the archipelago and a war fought between distant continents is played out across its waters.
The Islanders serves as an untrustworthy but enticing guide to the islands, an intriguing, multi-layered tale of a murder and the suspect legacy of its appealing but definitely untrustworthy narrator.
If that blurb didn’t convince you to read this book than I don’t think anything I will add will change that. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a more apt description of my own. I will, however, give it a try. Priest’s latest is the kind of book most fans of literature hope to read when they crack open a new tome; an elaborate, multi-faceted piece of writing which both challenges the reader in its subtlety and rewards in its inventiveness. One read through of The Islanders - literary geniuses apart - will not be enough for most readers to fully grasp it in its entirety, and that’s part of what makes it so delightful.
Also, it would be difficult to safely classify The Islanders in any particular genre. The mystical, nebulous nature of the Dream Archipelago lends itself well to a genre comparison, but unlike the majority of the books reviewed here on LBR, the ‘genre element’ really isn’t at the core of Priest’s novels. Instead, this is a bizarre look at artistic passion, mixed in with an inkling of a mystery plot and, frankly, a lot of other things I’d be hard pressed to define.
One thing is clear, you shouldn’t go into The Islanders expecting anything resembling a normal novel. It doesn’t even respect any form of conventional format, alternating between a strictly gazetteer/almanac style reference guide and mysterious short stories that may or may not be linked to each other. Which means, there isn’t much in the way of a central plot either. Sure, there are overall themes which Priest keeps coming back to, but the only sort of narrative we are treated to is a fleeting one, told in bits and pieces, not chronologically and with the details - like much else in this book - never fully revealed.
This aura of mystery that surrounds the lives of the sparse cast of characters is as I mentioned one that is engrained in the very setting of the book. This, for me, was one of the most enjoyable elements of the novel. Priest kept me guessing, dropping hints before I even knew to look for them, and somehow assembling a complex story full of mystery which I was simply dying to unravel.
I could probably go on about this book - such is its power - but I already feel like I’ve started rambling. Long story short: read this book. Sure, it won’t be as mind-numbingly simple a read as some epic fantasies (or, dare I say it, paranormal romances) but this in itself is a promise of something much more carefully wrought and something much more rewarding. Priest is a clever man and he’s not afraid to show us how much control he holds over his art, but never does The Islanders become condescending or self-indulgent. Give it a try.
My Rating: 5 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Christopher Priest's Website: http://www.christopher-priest.co.uk/
Buy The Islanders: