Tuesday, January 15, 2013

REVIEW: The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

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

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.