by Christopher Priest
Gollancz, hardback out now
A guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago, including the lives of warring artists, accounts of monsters, immortals, temporal anomalies and maybe even a murder (or two).
The BSFA-nominated The Islanders is an unusual book, even considering Christopher Priest’s track record in unreliable narrators and unstable narratives. This is a welcome return to the Dream Archipelago, previously visited in his collection The Dream Archipelago and in the novel The Affirmation.
The Dream Archipelago is a collection of thousands of islands (it may or may not be a fantasy world). The islands ring the equator of a world where the two dominant continents are in a permanent state of war. The Archipelago maintains a shifting, contested neutrality, and a series of diverse cultures exist across them.
For The Islanders, Priest has adopted the form of a travel guide (for the most part). In an A-Z format, several of the islands are described as to their geography, social make-up, places to stay and see, and their currency. These can be a little dry to begin with, but soon the narrative voices shift and the pieces vary in length and style. Across the novel a picture is built up of events across several locations and across time that may (or may not) add up to a coherent narrative.
This is a favourite technique of Priest’s: can you trust what any of the narrative voices are telling you? They may not be deliberately misleading, but simply self-deluded or unknowingly not in possession of the full facts. It is up to the reader to sift through the narrative accounts and descriptions offered and figure out for themselves what may (or may not) have actually happened. This echoes perhaps his best work to date, The Prestige.
This narrative obfuscation is a great game, and the further you get into the novel the more gripping it becomes, with the reasonable expectation that it will all build to a satisfying climax. Yet this is where Priest’s latest work fails: in pushing the uncertainty of the narrative to its absolute limits he has produced a work that is a great read, but nonetheless leaves a nagging lack of satisfaction come the end.
The author would no doubt argue that the journey is as valid as the destination, but the expectation of the reader is that the author is taking them somewhere and that there will be a point in the journey. Despite this, The Islanders is a page turner and a good addition to Priest’s wonderful body of work, even if one is left hanging by the conclusion…
Verdict: A wonderfully novel approach to the novel, with a minor nagging sense of a lack of resolution come the end. 8/10
Brian J. Robb