Wanders And Islanders - Steve Cockayne

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

Wanderers And Islanders
Steve Cockayne
Orbit Publishers
ISBN: 1841491535 (Amazon link)

This is another of those quirky fantasies we seem to be getting more of in the UK lately; this novel is subtitled Legends of the Land: Book One (and indeed book two, The Iron Chain, is sitting on my shelves at the moment) but it's very far from being Extruded Fantasy Product.

There is little of the heroic romance usually associated with Fantasy with an F. This is closer to some of the more urban fantasies of Gene Wolfe or maybe John Crowley than it is to Barclay or Erikson. The book opens with the obligatory italicised section by a shadowy figure living, haunting?, a house alone. Note to all publishers: I hate sections in italic. Especially in a book which already has multiple POVs, with some in first person, and others in third. Please, let me know who is talking by publishing authors who can do that with 'voice' alone. Don't typeset chapters in italics - it's a gimmick that has become cheapened by overuse. (Update: the author later dropped me an email saying that the italics were his idea, not the publishers!)

Er, where was I? The book then follows a retired gentleman from the Army, seeking employment. Victor Lazarus writes in the first person, in his diary. After a fruitless search, during which time "basic disciplines must still be observed" Victor eventually receives a mysterious letter asking him to present himself to the owner of a house in need of restoration. Victor doesn't remember applying, but is delighted to use his organisational skills again. Victor is one of many characters deftly drawn with a minimum of prose. The Retired English Major conjured in a dozen words.

Next, we meet Rusty Brown. Probably fair to call him the hero, well, the main viewpoint character anyway. Rusty's story is charming, and a testament to the author's writing. Rusty is a small boy who lives with only his mother, who does the village laundry. Every day Rusty heads off to school. He does well at school, but doesn't really have many friends. Then Laurel comes to school, and she is sat beside him by the teacher; a pipe-smoking elderly gentlemen fond of tea and cake of course. This is a rather mannered England, though never named as such, rather than the usual Fantasy-land.

Laurel is lively, and has patched clothes like Rustys. Rusty has a new friend. Rusty will never be the same. Neither will Laurel.

Next, we switch to the last main plot strand; Leonardo Pegasus is a Magician, a counsellor to the King no less. He works alone, fascinated with his Empathy Engines. By means of his skill he can imbue a detailed model of a future scenario with the viewpoints of those in that future. The operator can then examine his future plans from all viewpoints. A delicate, understated magic, mocked later in the book by those in power. Leonardo is happy in his life, surrounded by his models and tiny figurines, until he meets Alice while dropping off forms. Yes, he queues and fills in forms. This is an English fantasy remember?

So, those are the players, and a hazy, ill-defined middle England with post offices, electricity, and gentle magics is the stage. But what is the plot? Um, hard to say.

Let's do the novel in a paragraph:
Leonardo finds the world changing around him, falls in love with Alice, has his heart twisted up, and delights in the joys of unexpected unemployment. Rusty grows up, loses Laurel, has his life collapse, and then puts himself back together. And Victor? Victor manfully struggles with restoring the mysterious house. A task well suited to his abilities, managing his team of careful clerks and keen workmen he is in his element. Oh, apart from the evil shadow spoiling his every move.

Sounds trite like that. However, this isn't a plot-driven tale. Or rather, it is, but the twisting, inter-twining tales take a long time to come together, and I at least was never certain who some of the players were. The shadow isn't just Victor's shadow. Alice isn't just a clerk. Laurel wasn't just a little girl from the same village. Rusty isn't just an ordinary boy (though he isn't in the right novel to go on to become king). There is magic, but it's novel, and of no use? The times are a-changing, and the world at the end of the novel is quite different for some than it was at the beginning. I think I need to re-read to tell if I pieced things together correctly, but I don't think this is a logical novel. Some things that happen, happen and are caused by other characters, but why those characters can have that effect is never explained. (Avoiding spoilers is hard work.)

Wanderers and Islanders is clearly musing about peoples' roles in life and having fun subverting genre conventions while doing so. Along the way there are some poignant scenes, and some terrific writing. However, I don't think the whole quite works. I found the conclusion to be ... random. I felt that Wolfe or Crowley would have needed just a few changed words to make things feel Significant rather than just arbitrary. The constant contrast of view-points and story telling conventions also started to work against the whole; rather than feel rich and multi-layered it eventually started to feel fragmented. The inclusion of sections written by minor characters was interesting, and vital to pulling the rug from under the reader's feet in places, but the conventions adopted subtracted from the uniqueness of the major plot-lines. For example, our house-haunting Shadow, a mysterious fey figure, is written in the first person. Later sections start to jar against Victor's first person diaries. Which may well be the point actually, given the plot... Mmm.

Summary? Off-beat and genuinely talented new writer. This is the type of fantasy associated with Bradbury, Wolfe & Crowley - but the author isn't quite there yet. (This reminded me of nothing so much as Stoppard's The High House.) The plot didn't quite work for me, but I can't fault the writing, which genuinely moved me in places. A shockingly good first novel and an author to keep an eye on. Grade? B+.

Posted: Wed - May 7, 2003 at 12:49 AM