The Islanders

No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

“I find it ironic that I should be invited to write a few introductory words to this book, as I know as little about the subject as it is possible to know.”

I am not a traveller. I do not have the wanderlust that appears to pervade every cell of every member of my generation. Australia, America, Egypt – they look nice, but I have no real hurried desire to go to them. As such, travel memoirs and guidebooks are foreign fare for me. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up The Islanders, which is both and neither a memoir and a guidebook.

The book presents itself as a guidebook to the fictional Dream Archipelago, a huge collection of islands on an alternate planet. The number of islands has never been officially worked out as they tend to have different names in different languages, are almost impossible to navigate and there are no maps of the entire area. As such, the experts of the world simply say that there are “a great many islands” and leave it at that.

The first couple of chapters set you up, going into detail on the first islands, explaining their vague location, their climate and infrastructure, imports and exports, notable features, currency, some of their folklore and other things you’d expect from a guidebook beside. And then it all gets a bit odd.

The next chapter is more about a single expedition onto an island where the deadly thryme insect has made its home. Then there are chapters where you are given the life and times of a famous resident, or one that is a court transcript, or one that’s merely letters from a new writer to her favourite author. Once you notice that the same names keep popping up and that there appears to be an unexplained murder of a mime in several of the islands biographies, you begin to realise that this book is not at all what it seems.

Never clearly explaining at what point in history each story is set, it throws together several characters whose influence spread across the entire island, including reclusive author Chaster Kammeston, celebrated mime artist Akal Drester Commissah, tunneller Jordenn Yo, intrepid journalist Dant Willer and the mysterious, worshipped figure known only as Caurer. Their stories begin to trip over one another as they meet and avoid one another, each story shedding new light on old ones, and adding more questions to the tapestry.

Each island is unique, maybe famed for its culture, architecture, wine, or the fact it has been carved out into a huge musical instrument, and the story, such as it is, is captivating and keeps you asking questions, whether or not they’re the right ones.

I’ve never read Priest before, although in doing research on this book, I discovered that he actually set a few earlier novels within the Dream Archipelago. I don’t know if reading these will expand on the characters or locations featured, but as an individual text, it still works. The guidebook premise is interesting, but it becomes clear that the narrator has an agenda that he or she wants you to follow. After all, the Dream Archipelago is said to contain thousands upon thousands of islands of all shapes and sizes, and yet no more than fifty of them are discussed here.

Why are these ones so important?

What is going on in those towers on Seevl?

Who tried to destroy Lorna and Bradd’s boat?

The blurb on the book itself describes it as a “chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems” and that is pretty much accurate. So hop around the archipelago by all means, but you’re unlikely to come out of it the same person that went in.