The Islanders

Christopher Priest
The Islanders Cover

The Islanders


On whatever world it exists, the Dream Archipelago is a band of thousands of islands circumnavigating the equator and extending into both the northern and southern temperate zones. Many of the islands are unnamed, and the naming conventions can be misleading since each island has both a standard name and a name in the local patois. Mapping the islands is essentially impossible due to something called the temporal vortices. The vortices were first discovered when sea and air travelers came to realize that when using standard navigational tools the islands they departed from where not always in the same location when they returned. Those who have mastered these shifts can use the vortices as short cuts when traveling by air, but most travel is done by short range ferries. The book contains an effort to explain this phenomenon which frankly did me little good.

The Islanders is presented as a gazetteer of the archipelago, with each chapter part of an alphabetical listing of major or in some cases simply curious islands. But notice the title emphasizes inhabitants not geography. Recurring characters establish narrative threads throughout the book, although the threads can become tattered loose ends. So is Priest's book a novel in the form of a gazetteer? That seems like a pretty good description. Calling something an "experimental novel" sounds old-fashioned at this late date. This is not a traditional novel, but it is certainly a fiction, a term that emphasizes its Borgesian tendencies. There is romance, murder, monsters, ancient evil, war, and civil unrest, all incidents told against a background where the social structures combine a form of "benign medieval feudal state" alongside high-tech industries and generous wi-fi connections.

I confess I was more impressed by Priest's novel than I was enthralled or entertained by it. Right up to the last chapter I looked forward to discovering how he would tie together his disparate plot lines. Having now read reviews of the book I see I was playing a fool's game with an author not known for tying things together. Which is fine. We are, after all, in the Dream Archipelago. I am now content not to know who murdered the mime Comiss, or why characters who die in the course of the story still make an appearance in what I feel certain is a chronologically later episode. It must be those temporal vortices at work.