First thing to note is that this is not a novel. It’s more like notes that travelers put together on exotic (to them, not people who live there) locales they visited. Think of it as akin to something the publishers of Lonely Planet or Rough Guide have published for decades now. Some parts work for me, some didn’t.
The Islanders is set in the same geographical region as Priest’s novel The Affirmation and short story collection The Dream Archipelago, but unlike the previous books it is set primarily within the islands as a guidebook to them.
It quickly becomes obvious that it shares with the previous works set here the use of an unreliable narrator and, though it portrays and describes a number of the exotic islands, the specific details, even names and locations, are often radically different as each story is told.
It starts off with a preface by a narrator named Chaster Kammeston who states that ‘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. However, having always maintained that what one feels is more important than what one knows, let me begin.’
He then goes on quite some detail, similar to a Victorian Era writer describing ‘native’ customs that he never seen by relying on works by authors who went to that island but are unreliable as narrators, as we cannot be sure they are factually reporting what they have seen! He ends by stating that ‘None of it is real, though, because reality lies in a different, more evanescent realm. These are only the names of some of the places in the archipelago of dreams. The true reality is the one you perceive around you, or that which you are fortunate enough to imagine for yourself.’
There are about sixty stories; some are about places and some are about individuals. Some touch upon the war that the two nations, one toward the north polar region and the other toward the south polar region, have been fighting for perhaps centuries. Neither can wage war in the archipelago but can transit it and have various bases there.
Adding to the weirdness of the archipelago is there are both geographic and temporal anomalies that make it extremely difficult to say if a given island exists, and when and where. What one narrator claims is true is not what another narrator will claim to be true. Some of the narrators even admit that they cannot be sure what they experienced actually was real.
One of pieces involves both a woman supposed to be dead by means that are beyond belief, and the funeral of Chaster Kammeston where the former was once seen. (None of these pieces bear dates.) It’s ambiguous enough that I’ve no trust in that narrator.
It’s a quick read and one that raises interesting questions, one being if the world itself is somewhat unfettered by time or geography! I’m not sure reading them in the order presented is a necessity but there’s no reason not to either.