The Islanders is Priest’s first novel since 2002’s The Separation, which, in this fan’s view, is way too long. So, is this latest work worth the wait?
Presented as a fictional gazetteer interspersed with a series of short stories, it is set on various islands in the Dream Archipelago. Each island has a variety of names; official, local, patois, which may or may not hint at the nature of the island or its population. Many of the islands have distinct characteristics such as carved art installations or deadly insects or a history of isolationism. The reader should discover others themselves. Either side of the archipelago a traveller would find vast continents that are at war with each other.
The introduction to the gazetteer is by one of the characters, a titular islander, who becomes a key character later in the text. The chapters are presented in alphabetical order based on each island’s formal name, although patois names are listed on the contents page. The majority of the chapters are, to all intents and purposes, factual, as if in a travel guide, with vital information to the visitor. Each chapter ends, to that extent, with a guide to accepted currencies for the traveller. However, the information on some islands is offered in the form of short stories. These are in a variety of styles; some are first person autobiographical, others are tales and one is a criminal report. Initially, each story appears to stand alone. Soon, however, characters reappear, or islands mentioned in earlier stories are brought to the fore. The overall story appears to reveal itself with a cast of interconnected characters. A respected mime artist dies under mysterious circumstances. A novelist appears to go into recluse. An artist is shunned by his benefactors while another is banned from many of the islands. There is no linearity of the stories. Some refer to past events while others present those same events contemporaneously.
Priest is known for writing intricate and intellectual stories with complex character arcs and The Islanders is no exception. What is particularly refreshing about his writing is that while it is knowingly clever it doesn’t read as being so for its own sake. It’s not arrogant. It’s not Priest saying, ‘look how clever I am!’ The Islanders is a different, and in my experience, unique way of telling a story. I would not attempt to classify the nature of the novel. It is set on another planet but it is not traditional science fiction. There are hints at supernatural phenomena but it is not a fantasy. It isn’t a thriller or crime or literary fiction. It is a complex, genre-defining puzzle of a novel which breaks the golden rule of a story needing a beginning, a middle and an end.
The Islanders is full of excellent prose, interesting characters (some human, some actual islands), wit and imagination, and at the end it left me engaged and ultimately satisfied with a great read and a great piece of writing.