Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: The Islanders

The last time I read a Christopher Priest novel I was resoundingly blown away.  The Prestige is easily one of my all-time favorite books, and it's a book that has had a lasting effect on me.  Almost exactly a year later, I still find myself still thinking about that book and all it's amazing nuances.

I'll be honest, despite such success with my first Christopher Priest reading experience, I was hesitant to dive into another of his works. Not long after I read The Prestige, my lady bought me a copy of The Islanders, and I've had it sitting on my shelf ever since.  Though I told myself I was waiting for the right moment to read it, that is only partially true.  Part of me had been hesitant because I was afraid that my next Priest read might not be as impressive as The Prestige, and thus lower my esteem for Priest and his works.  What if it wasn't as good?  What it Priest isn't as phenomenal a writer as I think he is?  These doubts assailed my conscience, and delayed my next Christopher Priest reading venture. Eventually though, my curiosity won over my doubts and I moved away from uninformed speculating and got down to the reading.

By the end of The Islanders' introduction, I knew I had been a fool for doubting Priest.

And to think I almost skipped the introduction!

For real.  I almost skipped it.  I almost always skip introductions as they tend to be spoiler-ridden gush fests. Seriously, introductions don't do a lot for me, and out of habit I almost passed this one over.  Then I got a sneaking suspicion that Priest might be just the kind of guy to write a fake introduction to his own book.  Then I took a look at the writer who introduces the novel; A guy by the name of Chaster Kammeston.  It sounded like a made up name, so I decided I'd better not skip a single printed word of this one, and dove in.    My suspicions were quickly proven correct, and within a few paragraphs I found myself completely lost in this novel that is one part travelogue to a fantastical world, one part mystery, one part literary puzzle, and sports a myriad of additional facets that make this book one of the most engaging, challenging, and artful books I've ever read in my life.

This might sound like hyperbole, but The Islanders is one of the most cleverly written books I have ever read.  The layout of the book is a sort of atlas/travel guide to a vast archipelago.  Each chapter covers a different island, or island group in the archipelago, and talks about the island's flora, fauna, and geographical characteristics. The chapters would often cover a bit of history and some information about notable people who have lived on the island as well.  As the reader begins to progress through the novel, certain notable islanders start popping up all over the map, and certain well-known stories get fleshed out, and further developed.  The end product is an amazing jigsaw puzzle of a novel where all the pieces are presented to the reader, but the reader is left to do much of the piecing together and a bit of the mystery solving as well.

It's kinda funny, but I don't think I've ever had to work this hard for a novel, but at the same time, I don't think I've ever wanted to "figure everything out" more than I did with The Islanders.  Priest does absolutely no hand holding here, and instead, assumes that he has a readership that can parcel things out given his hints, clues and reveals.

Much like with The Prestige, Priest once again plays the part of writer-magician, as he masterfully employs clever acts of deception, and sleight of hand as his narrative unfolds.  There's a murder mystery at the heart of this novel, and though it, (or any other story element for that matter), never really takes center stage, it is this story element that many other elements swirl around.  Every now and then, other pieces of this mosaic will touch on the murder mystery story, and a clearer picture of the whole tapestry will be provided.

Although it was easy to fall into this novel, and easy to bask in the joy of reading such skilled writing, it took some time to get fully into the swing of this novel and what it is all about.  The reason being is that many chapters seemingly wouldn't reveal anything that ties into the overall tapestry of the novel, while others would provide massive treasure troves of pertinent information that the reader had been craving.  Eventually, I got into the swing of things, but this is a novel that requires a measure of patience from the reader.

That patience will certainly pay off, as this is not only one of the very best novels sitting on my shelves, but it is also a completely unique book in that it is an art piece that is also a book.  Priest plays with the reader's notions of story format, narrative flow, and expectations.  On top of that, he ensures that his work is something that has to be actively engaged by the reader.  Yes, I understand that by opening any book, reading its words, and turning its pages is active engagement, but Priest goes far beyond that by making the reader work to piece this narrative together, and in the end, make sense of it all.  Sure, this is a pretty big risk on his part, as some readers might not want to work that hard for the pay-off, but I can't remember ever feeling so rewarded after reading a novel, nor have I ever felt such a give and take sensation from reading a novel.

After a years and years of reading, it is pretty fucking exciting to read something that manages to do so much new stuff in just one novel.

To top it all off, Priest shows that his world building skills put even the greatest epic fantasists in check.  The island archipelago upon which this mosaic novel is set is a place that Priest brings to life in such a way engages all five senses.  Like all the best fantasy worlds, this is a place that is so well created that a reader will want to journey there again and again.

While a reread of The Islanders purely for fantasy world escapist pleasure would be rewarding, I can see plenty of other reasons to revisit this novel for the sake of greater understanding of the narrative as well.  Priest laces his sentences, paragraphs, and pages with clues and hints, and I'm sure I missed a few along the way.   Though I loved every page of this novel, by the end I couldn't help but think I'd maybe missed a thing or two along the way that would have led to a fuller understanding.

Here it is October, and I'm pretty sure I have a clear front runner for best read of 2012.  The Islanders is simply an astounding achievement of literature.  It is very safe to say I was blown away.  I'm enthusiastically giving this my recommendation.  If a fascinating world, and an expertly clever narrative aren't enough to entice you, The Islanders also has possibly the best fantasy creature ever...the Thryme is not to be trifled with.  Purely sublime stuff here. Read and enjoy!

Grade: A+


Bryce L. said...

I really enjoyed The Prestige even after seeing the movie. I've been meaning to read more and the Islanders sounds like the perfect place to start (again).

Ryan said...

Yeah, I highly recommend you read The Islanders...of course, I can't really recommend any of his other stuff seeing as how I have only read The Prestige and The Islanders.

That said, it is a really flipping awesome book.