a review by Steve Cameron
The Dream Archipelago consists of thousands of islands that gird the equator. To the north and south are two large continents consisting of a number of nations who seem to be perpetually in a state of war. Mapping or navigating the archipelago is almost impossible due to a physical anomaly, a time vortex which plays with space and time in bizarre ways. And so The Islanders is a guide, a gazetteer, much like a Lonely Planet book, that introduces the reader to the islands.
In preparation for reviewing this, I returned to The Dream Archipelago, a collection of short stories set on these islands that I first read over twenty years ago. And instantly I remembered why Christopher Priest is one of my favourite writers. Several of the stories in that collection were achingly beautiful. Priest has returned to this archipelago on another occasion too. The Affirmation features a protagonist who visits this world as part of his delusions.
It’s difficult to describe this book as either a novel or an anthology of short stories. It reads much like a travel guide. The first third of the book catalogues islands, detailing political structures, geographical landscapes and local history. As such, it took some time for me to ‘get into’ this book. But then came chapters which read like court documents, self contained short narratives, and before long recurring names and details start to emerge within an overlying story arc. Indeed, this collection of documents contains a plot, a narrative regarding a murder. But it isn’t long before we realise that the narrator is extremely unreliable. (And since the protagonist in The Affirmation is delusional, is this world simply a dream?)
While this book will not be to every reader’s liking, it’s hard to deny that it’s an extremely brave experiment that has been successfully executed in the hands of a master storyteller. Reading the previous collection is not necessary before reading this, although doing so will add much colour to the experience.
As a book, I completely loved it, and I intend to re-read it again shortly in order to see what I missed first time around. Highly recommended.