Tuesday, January 15, 2013

REVIEW: The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

The Islanders, by Christopher Priest. Published 2012 by Gollancz.

The Islanders is one of the strangest and most challenging books I've read in a long time. Let's just say if you thought Cloud Atlas was easy and kind of dull, The Islanders would be a great book for you.

Christopher Priest is one of our greatest living writers of science fiction, not that I even know enough about SF to say that, but I'll say it anyway, and I challenge anyone to dispute me. Go on, bring it. He started off writing pretty standard SF but has progressed over the years to difficult puzzle books, books that you can't say you've read until you've read them at least twice. With The Islanders, I think three times is probably the minimum.

I picked it up after hearing it described as "Nabokovian" and Christopher Priest is one of the few authors who actually deserves the comparison. The book starts immediately, and I mean before the first page, with the dedication. The Islanders sets itself up as a gazetteer of a fictional place called the Dream Archipelago, a huge chain of islands stretching around an imaginary globe. No one knows how many islands there are in the Archipelago, their exact terrain, population, etc.; some of the islands have multiple names and it's hard even to say which is the "true" one. Then there's that word, "true." It's one that you'd best let go of, since absolutely nothing is what it seems in Priest's twisty universe. Or is it? Maybe some of it?

The book starts out with an introduction by a man named Chaster Kammeston, who later, um, seems like he wouldn't be in a position to write it at all. (Or...?) Then we go through many islands, one at a time, and slowly a narrative emerges about a murder and more. Characters who don't seem important turn out to be crucial; misdirection abounds. The style varies. Dry reference alternates with weird short stories that intersect and overlap. In one, Priest invents the thryme, a horrific creature which will haunt your nightmares as it has mine. Later he'll chill you to the bone with a  Lovecraftian tale of madness and solitude. We learn about a process enabling immortality, an enigmatic painter who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake, a temperamental theater performer, a writer and his twin, and a woman who wants to turn the islands themselves into musical instruments. And then there's that murder.

If you've read Priest before you'll recognize some of the motifs, like twins and the theater, artists and what it means to create. If not, buckle up. This book confounded me, confused me, flipped me around and landed me back on the ground only to want to start the whole crazy ride all over again. I've only read the book once so by my own standards I can't be said to have read it at all. I need to go back to this wonderful, puzzling and infuriating book. I have to. And you need to get started on your first go-through, like right now.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

11 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

OMG!!! On one hand, I love your enthusiasm and want to follow your advice. But you've gone and scared me! Bizarre and twisty can be so much fun, but it is a slippery slope because if it crosses that line and I lose may way, I may DNF the thing. I am seized with indecision.

Cozy in Texas said...

I think this is a book you have to be in the mood for.
Ann

bermudaonion said...

If this was challenging for you, I know it's not for me.

bermudaonion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Audra said...

I am so intrigued! And daunted! And curious! And frightened! Obviously, I need to get this book and wrestle with it. I can't wait.

Literary Feline said...

I don't know what to think! Haha! You make such a compelling argument for it, although it's not likely something I'd pick up on my own. Maybe I should test it out on my husband first . . .

Zibilee said...

This sounds bizarre and weird, and just plain wonderful! I love books that take serious effort to puzzle out, and when you do, they flip you around. It sounds like this is something that I would love to read and experience for myself. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it with us. It makes for terribly interesting reading!!

Athira said...

Now you've convinced me! I will have to read this one even if I don't get it at all.

Eva said...

Have put this on my TBR list for when I'm in the mood for such a book! I do tend to enjoy them. :)

Aarti said...

I think I'm with Eva on this one. I like the premise of this book and I know Priest is probably masterful but... well, I've never read Cloud Atlas but I imagine it would be way over my head, too!

Kathleen said...

I'm sure this one will go way over my head but I do like a challenge so I am adding it to my list to keep in mind for future.