Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: The Islanders, by Christopher Priest

The Islanders by Christopher Priest
Published : Gollancz, 2011
Awards Won : BSFA Award and Campbell Memorial Award

The Book :

“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 for high society. Hot winds blow across the archipelago and a war fought between two distant continents is played out across its waters. 

The Islanders serves both 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.”

This is only the second novel I’ve read by Christopher Priest, and the first was The Prestige.  I really enjoyed both the book and film of The Prestige, though they had their differences.  I’d always meant to read more of his work.

My Thoughts:

The Islanders is presented as a guide to the Dream Archipelago, and it contains chapters describing various islands, ordered alphabetically. The Dream Archipelago is an uncertain, contradictory kind of place, and the structure of the novel reflects that.  It is a place that can’t be seen as a whole, due to temporal distortions, and so, like the reader, the inhabitants have to build a sense of their world from experiences and disjointed information. Many pieces of the puzzle are also suspect or inconsistent.  For example, this is a book whose fictional introduction is written by a character that dies within its pages. Since I haven’t read many of Christopher Priest’s novels, I’m not sure exactly where this novel fits into his larger body of work.  There are other works that feature the Dream Archipelago, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything crucial by reading The Islanders first.

The novel makes for a very odd kind of travel guide, since the information provided for each island varies greatly.  Some islands’ sections contain only geographical and cultural descriptions, others have complete short stories, and still others contain transcripts of interviews or correspondences.  Some chapters, like the one about the horrific insects named thrymes, were pretty exciting in their own right, but I was most impressed by how the different sections interlinked with one another.  For instance, one section contained a one-sided conversation of letters between an aspiring novelist and a famous writer Chaster Kammeston.  Though her letters seem perfectly friendly and polite, information later revealed about Kammeston highlights how many of his buttons she managed to innocently push.  I loved how the book became progressively more complicated as there was more information to mentally cross-reference, and I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth between chapters to remind myself of small details.

The novel offers many tantalizing puzzles, but it does not provide any solutions.  If you’re expecting any kind of resolution or conclusion resolves the mysteries and ties together the different plotlines, then you will be disappointed.  There are enough clues, though, for the reader to come up with their own theories, and it is also left to the reader to decide on what meaning, if any, the overall work holds. For one example, there is never any revelation about the true circumstances of the murder, mentioned in the novel’s description. However, there’s enough information scattered throughout the novel to give a pretty good idea of what happened.  I can see how this style of novel would not be to everyone’s taste, but I had a lot of fun trying to see how everything fit together!  

My Rating: 4/5

The Islanders is more of a puzzle than a conventional novel.  It is presented as a tourist’s guide to the Dream Archipelago, and it contains a story, description, correspondence, or other shortwork for a variety of islands, ordered alphabetically by name.  I liked how the various sections linked to one another, and how information gained later in the novel could change the interpretation of previous chapters.  I thought it was a lot of fun piecing larger stories together from the information scattered throughout the different islands’ sections.  There is really nothing in the way of a conclusion, though, so the larger picture only exists within the readers’ minds.  Like the cartographers that draw maps from the Archipelago’s wandering drones, the reader is left to construct their view of The Islanders by building connections between many disjointed pieces of information.   

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