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The Islanders by Christopher Priest
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The Islanders (edition 2012)

by Christopher Priest, Grady McFerrin (Designer)

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1831064,645 (3.92)25
Member:Vikz.Richards
Title:The Islanders
Authors:Christopher Priest
Other authors:Grady McFerrin (Designer)
Info:Gollancz (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:*****
Tags:None

Work details

The Islanders by Christopher Priest

  1. 20
    City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (anglemark)
    anglemark: There are similarities in style and theme.
  2. 10
    Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (tetrachromat)
    tetrachromat: Similar in structure and in themes.
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The pact we make as readers of fiction is willful suspension of disbelief. In The Islanders, Christopher Priest has come up with new ways to make even that literary pact suspect. As one friend put it, "he's not just f*cking with you but with your ontological certainty." Trying to write a thoughtful review of this Rubik's Cube of a book was as difficult as trying to unravel the narrative itself. As I was reading, I kept hearing the Twilight Zone theme song in my head, and I had this low-grade paranoia that the islands I was reading about were much more than they seemed.

The premise: Priest's mind-bending book is about an imaginary grouping of islands, the Dream Archipelago, located in the Midway Sea that separates two larger land masses. At the outset, the islands seem like a hunky-dory Switzerland-like zone. The islands are peaceful and independent, having signed a historic and binding Covenant that is revered like the Magna Carta. Most importantly, the agreement assures the islands' neutrality in international affairs and protects the Archipelago from the warring shenanigans of their landlocked neighbors to the north. But this is a strange and contradictory novel and even the Covenant can't stop the more insidious forms of turmoil that emerge. And there are lots.

The book is made up of thirty or so sections that alternate between oddball travelogue profiles of the various islands—flora and fauna, climate, best times to visit, the currency used, etc.—and short stories that introduce us to several of the island natives. These characters include: a mime performer named Commis who is the victim in what may have been murder or a horrible accident; a Banksy-like guerilla artist named Jordenn Yo who turns mountain bedrock into giant art installations; Esla Caurer, a social reformer who later becomes canonized by some locals for allegedly performing miracles—of which she strangely has no knowledge and denies; Esphoven Muy, a kind of philosopher-meteorologist who categories the various winds that blow over the area; Chaster Kammeston, author of the book's Foreword and a reclusive novelist who appears later in the book and may or may not be involved in the aforementioned murder (or is it his lookalike brother?!); and Dryd Bathurst, a handsome charismatic landscape painter and portrait artist.

The trickiest part about reading The Islanders is trying to sift through these profiles and characters to find *the* story. This is an novel after all, if a nonlinear, fragmented one. One narrative thread that emerges early on is the account of a gruesome but mysterious death. It is first shown via a transcript of a confession from a man who allegedly committed the violent act. The man is later convicted and executed. We learn more about the victim from a first-hand account of a student who was working in the theater where the incident took place. Later another story reveals that the student wasn't who he said he was. And so on. Priest shows us these puzzle pieces, and then turns around and casts doubt on the pieces we've put together. We learn more but know less. Tricksy.

The archipelago setting alone gives us the contradictory notions of isolation and interconnectedness. (Are all men islands, or is no man an island, as John Donne argued?) Account after account, we see that the characters themselves are their own inscrutable island chains. They are emotionally isolated and yet hyper aware of others around them. On the island of Meequa, a cartographer goes down to the beach every night and looks out across a shallow strait, toward a smaller island called Tremm. Her boyfriend who worked on Tremm has disappeared. To complicate matters, Tremm is off-limits, having been requisitioned by one of the mainland militaries. (So much for the Covenant!) The pairings—both Meequa/Trem and the couple—become a metaphor for the fractured relationships throughout the book. Adding to this freaky mix, there are frequent references to doubles and secret identities. Characters end up having lookalikes, or they lie about who they said they were. This 'twining' effect is reinforced in the way the islands always have two names (an official name and the patois name or local name) and in the way different island grouping have similar locations (example: The Torquis island group, located at coordinates 44N - 49N and 23W - 27W, is a mirror of the Torquils island group, located at 23S - 27S and 44E - 49E).

See, Twilight Zone, didn't I tell you?

Priest is a science fiction author who is widely known for books that play with illusion and unreliability. Like the illusionists in his earlier work [book: The Prestige], Priest is a cunning underminer of assumptions and conditions. The Islanders thrills by throwing you off balance in the same way. It's an icy burn of a read but not a slog. The book is simply told (the prose is quite flat actually), yet complex in concept and structure, full of shifting shadows and smoke and mirrors. Something deep and seismic is going on here. Even now I'm not sure what it is exactly but I know it's there. So don't think too hard when you read this book (though you probably will). When you arrive on the islands, toss out your compass and enjoy the tour. ( )
3 vote gendeg | Oct 14, 2014 |
It’s hard to write a synopsis of this novel. The book is structured as a travel log of the Dream Archipelago, a series of islands in a world other than ours. To understand the plot you need to read everything including the introductory and dedication. Each chapter is about a different island. I was afraid it would be a dry read because the first chapter is the most like a travel log explaining the geology of the island and the climate, but by the end of the chapter I realized it was a love story. All of the chapters are individual stories that have some link to the island the writer is describing. Within every chapter a character or story from a previous chapter appears. Eventually a narrative is formed.

An artist travels through the islands leaving love and loss in his wake. A mime is killed while performing in a theater. The author of the introductory appears over and over again in the novel even though he claims he has never left his home island. There is a tragic love affair.

The reader should read this novel in one or two sittings unless they have a really good memory. At one point I went back and reread the introductory and then I noticed the dedication page and thought “oh yeah, I get it.”

I am a fan of Christopher Priest and familiar with his reality questioning works. I recommend this book to those who enjoy reading novels with unusual narrative structure including unreliable narrators. ( )
  craso | May 24, 2014 |
I would recommend reading the short stories in The Dream Archipelago before attempting this book. They introduce the setting for the Dream Archipelago, a constellation of islands which stand off the coast of two warring blocs and which seem to have almost personalities of their own.

The Islanders initially appears as a travel guide, with entries on the various islands in the Dream Archipelago. Yet these entries tell us little that is not either confusing or contradictory. The names of the islands are particularly useless as they all seem to blend together, rather than stand out. The Guide as well soon becomes untrustworthy as its purported author appears as a character in some of its entries for islands. And there are a small cast of characters that re-appear in different entries, some more or less consistent than others in their motivations and actions. The strangest tale, which re-appears the most, is that of the apparent murder of a mime artist, done using a plate of glass in a theatre. Would something as unlikely as this actually occur?

Add some brilliant stories that plough very different furrows: a romance in a secret base of one of the Powers trying to use technology to map the islands (unsuccessfully), the awful wildlife on another island and the true nature of the old, empty towers on some islands, and you have a classic, about our world but not of it. Even the winds are different enough to have names in the local patois and a person (both revered and reviled) who builds 'sculptures' to channel them for artistic effects.

Every thing is named, but the names mean nothing. ( )
1 vote AlanPoulter | Jan 31, 2014 |
This one reminded me a bit of some of Jeff VanderMeer's works, in a good way. While the constantly-shifting perspectives and narrations were a little jarring at first, it ended up being a great pleasure to try and puzzle out what was happening. Highly enjoyable, and Priest's created a fantastic and very strange world. ( )
  JBD1 | Nov 20, 2013 |
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Christopher Priestprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Yoshimi-dori, FurusawaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0575070048, Hardcover)

Reality is illusory and magical in the stunning new literary SF novel from the multiple award-winning author of The Prestige—for fans of Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell
 
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. It shows Christopher Priest at the height of his powers and illustrates his undiminished power to dazzle.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:47:56 -0400)

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This book pieces together the rather unpleasant lives of the main characters is entertaining; and there are episodes complete in themselves, short stories really, which are satisfying. The ghosts are excellent. And I consider the thryme an absolutely first-class invention.… (more)

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