Five by Five Books #5: “The Islanders” (2011) by Christopher Priest

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Islanders is written in the form of a travel guide to a vast, equatorial, globe-encircling chain of islands called the Dream Archipelago. The names, shapes, histories, locations, economies, and politics of the Archipelago’s islands are elusive and amorphous, defying ready mapping or simple narrative description. Several key characters (a mime, an artist, a social reformer, a reporter, a roustabout, a writer, a stage manager) appear sporadically throughout the text, on a variety of islands, and over wide spans of time, their stories occasionally over-lapping, all advancing through hints and off-hand references and casual mentions. The Dream Archipelago is, by law, ostensibly a peaceful buffer zone between two warring polar superpowers, though both powers wield significant influence and shape the narrative through varying degrees of skullduggery or outright aggression. An apparently unreliable narrator further complicates the proceedings, whoever he or she might be.

Who wrote it? Christopher Priest is a British novelist who cites H.G. Wells as a formative influence; he has served since 2006 as a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society. His books and short fiction have won multiple British Science Fiction Association Awards, and he has also been nominated for or won various Hugo, Campbell, James Tait Black, Clarke and World Fantasy Awards throughout his career. He is probably best known in the U.S. for his novel, The Prestige (1995), which was adapted into a highly acclaimed and successful film of the same name by Christopher Nolan, with Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale in the lead roles. He has also written various film tie-ins and television screenplays under pseudonyms. The Dream Archipelago has been a recurring motif/location in his fiction, first appearing in 1981’s The Affirmation, where a possibly schizophrenic protagonist may or may not be preparing to undergo an operation that will make him immortal, a theme that again appears in The Islanders.

When and where did I read it? This is a relatively new one to me, since I just read it this past May, during the trip that Marcia and I took to Fort Lauderdale, Florida around my birthday. I was not familiar with Christopher Priest when this book showed up on the “Recommended for You” panel of my Kindle, probably because I had recently read the first two books of Jeff Vandermeer’s somewhat thematically similar (in terms of its narrative ambiguity) Southern Reach Trilogy. The unmitigated weirdness of The Islanders‘s premise appealed to me, so despite my general reluctance to buy new books by unknown (to me) authors, I went ahead and downloaded it, and was absolutely delighted by my choice. I finished the book over a couple of days (it was addictive reading), and the lovely tropical opulence of our rental digs at Villa Amorosa provided an absolutely perfect setting and ambiance for the woozy literary magic that Priest concocts in The Islanders. I even dreamed about the Dream Archipelago, further cementing my sense that reading The Islanders was a very resonant, provocative, and haunting (in the good sense of the word) experience for me.

Why do I like it? I have always loved entering and experiencing well-created, fully-realized, wholly inhabitable literary worlds, in books, in video games, in movies, in online communities, anywhere. The Dream Archipelago is one of the most vibrant and rich such literary worlds that I’ve ever experienced, even though the descriptions that Priest offers of it are nebulous, shifting, and certainly lacking in the structural rigidity and formality of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. That being said, some of the details placed before a reader are sublime: the explanations of tunneling as an art form, or of a particularly nasty toxic critter, or of the denizens haunting a cluster of ancient towers, or of the activities of the polar superpowers’ drones, and so many other scenes, all of which are beautifully elucidated, and instantly memorable. Very little is ever explicitly explained in The Islanders; instead, the reader gains knowledge and perspective pebble by pebble, bit by bit, hint by hint, picking up a lot of information over time, while not actually realizing how much has been learned. The key recurring characters in the novel are also delightfully well-realized, and the often unexpected interactions between them provide some of the novels’ sharpest “a-ha!” moments, where revelation seems close at hand, though it almost always still slips through your fingers if you try to grab on to it too quickly or too hard. 

A five sentence sample text: (From Chaster Kammeston’s Introductory) “Here is a book about islands and islanders, full of information and facts, a great deal I know nothing about, and even more on which I had opinions without substance. People too: some of them I knew personally, or had heard about, and now rather late in the days have learned something about them. There is so much out there, so many islands to discover, while I am familiar with but one of them. I was born on the island where I live now and where I am writing these words, I have never stepped off the island, and I expect never to do so before I die. If there were a book about only my home island I should be uniquely equipped to introduce it, but for quite other reasons I would then not agree to do so.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

Five by Five Books #4: “Titus Groan” (1946) and “Gormenghast” (1950) by Mervyn Peake

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? This two-tome story cycle tells the coming-of-age tale of Titus Groan, Seventy-Seventh Earl of Gormenghast, an anachronistic realm ruled from days immemorial by Titus’ forebears, whose seat of power is a vast, ancient, crumbing castle, rife with long-forgotten halls, chambers and secrets. The opening book, Titus Groan, is set entirely between Titus Groan’s birth and his first birthday, with the infant Earl serving less as a character than as a catalyst — seemingly small occurrences surrounding his birth set in motion an ever-growing series of circles and circumstances that come to full blossom in the second book (Gormenghast), eventually threatening the ritual-bound cultures of the ruling Groans and their earldom itself. The books’ characters are introduced as extraordinary Dickensian grotesques for the most part, though the key players gain both depth and breadth as the story advances; Titus’ older sister, the Lady Fuchsia, stands as a particularly complex and heart-breaking literary creation of unparalleled pathos. The story’s main antagonist — the ever upwardly mobile ex-kitchen boy Steerpike — is one of the great villains of 20th Century literature (his accumulated misdeeds also make him one of the most openly sociopathic characters you’re likely to encounter in a book read for pleasure), while the conflict between the Groan family’s loyal retainer, Mr. Flay, and the corpulent chef Abiatha Swelter is delicious in its repugnance and resolution. Beneath and beyond everything else is Castle Gormenghast itself, a literary setting so rich and so perfectly imagined that it almost becomes a character in its own right, its dusty stone hallways serving as the veins and arteries through which the story flows to its unexpected and powerful climax. 

Who wrote it? Mervyn Peake (1911-1968) was an exceptionally gifted English novelist, illustrator, poet and artist whose creative career was unfortunately truncated by premature dementia associated with Parkinson’s Disease. Peake was born in China to Congregationalist missionary parents, and exhibited precocious skills as both a visual and textual story-teller which were nurtured through formal education at the Croydon School of Art and Royal Academy Schools. In the 1930s — while dividing his time between London and the Channel Island of Sark — Peake gained a strong following in both literary and artistic circles through highly acclaimed theatrical commissions, solo exhibitions and the publication of his first book, the self-illustrated Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor. He applied to serve as a combat and campaign artist after the outbreak of World War II, but was instead conscripted into service with the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers; he was eventually invalided out of the Army following a nervous breakdown, though he was eventually commissioned to create a series of works for the War Artists Advisory Committee. Peake wrote and published Titus Groan and Gormenghast in the latter half of the 1940s, intending them to be the first two volumes of a much longer series; only the novella Boy in Darkness (1956) and the slim, fragmentary, controversially edited Titus Alone (1960) were completed of the Titus tales before Peake’s failing health finally silenced him.

When and where did I read it? I first read these two books (as well as Titus Alone, which is generally marketed as the third book of “The Gormenghast Trilogy,” though it bears little stylistic resemblance to the earlier two books beyond shared characters) in my tiny bedroom in old military quarters at Mitchel Field, a decrepit World War I airbase that seemed to reek of the same rot and rust that pervaded Gormenghast. I know I was reading these books in September 1979, because that’s when Jethro Tull’s Stormwatch album came out, which I listened to over and over again at the time, so that the songs on that album are all indelibly linked to Peake’s stories in my mind to this day. I checked the books out from the Nassau Community College library when it was in one of the old military buildings on the base, which I visited frequently because there was a beautiful blonde college clerk who worked there and who I crushed on hugely. If admitted to that building today, I could quickly and easily walk straight to the spot on the shelves where the books resided, so strongly was that spot imprinted by repeated visits to extend the due dates on these long books, and also to flirt with the clerk. The editions of Titus Groan and Gormenghast that I initially read at Mitchel Field (I’ve read and owned multiple versions since then) was a beautiful, heavy old version, hardbound in black fabric, with plates of Peake’s illustrations within; I’ve not seen these editions again since 1979, but would snap them up in a heartbeat if I did.

Why do I like it? Oh, I could wax poetic at length in answering this question, but in keeping with the “Five by Five” premise, I’ll just cite five key favorite points, beginning with plot pacing: it’s slow, for sure, but the central story creeps inexorably forward through numerous asides and detours, so that its occasional concussions and climaxes are truly, deeply shocking and memorable. Second: Peake supplements his core story arc with beautiful illustrations and magnificent poetry, creating a rich and fully-realized world that deploys all of his formidable artistic skills in the process; to some extent, Titus Alone is a failure simply because it is primarily set outside the amazing world that Peake constructs in the first two Titus books. Which brings me to my third favorite point: as mentioned above, Castle Gormenghast is a character in its own right, and I do not think I had (or have) ever read a book that spent so much of its narrative on setting scenes, which sounds dull, I know, but is actually riveting in its obsessiveness. Fourth favorite: I love the incredible development of the central characters throughout the story arc, with the heroes of the latter chapters being largely inconceivable based on how you first encounter those same characters 1,000+ pages earlier. And finally (for here, at least, since I could certainly say more), it all comes down to Peake’s prose: I just love the way this guy writes, and I would cite him as one of the most important influences on my own own knotty and florid narrative style.

A five sentence sample text: “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one half way over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

Five by Five Books #3: “Nova” by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Nova is a space opera set in the 32nd Century and centered around a long-running dynastic feud between the Von Ray and Red families, both of which are seeking to secure and maintain economic superiority across a vast interstellar market. The potentially balance-tilting commodity in the narrative is Illyrion, a super-heavy element that is critical to travel between the stars, and which is only mined in trace amounts in the (relatively) newly-settled Outer Colonies. Captain Lorq Von Ray embarks upon a quest to triumph finally and absolutely over his arch-enemy, Prince Red, by harvesting Illyrion from the book’s titular imploding star, aided and abetted by a rogue’s gallery of crew members and shipmates. Nova features shifting point of view, jumps between flashbacks and the core quest narrative, and offers a unique blend of hard science, mysticism, art, culture, history and music of the future. Ultimately, though, it is the conflict between the Captain Ahab-like obsessions of Lorq Von Ray and the creepy casual cruelties of Prince Red (and his tragic, ill-served sister, Ruby) that powers this narrative, and Nova‘s story arc is powerfully resonant and memorable for all the right literary reasons.

Who wrote it? Samuel R. Delany is an author, literary critic, and university professor with four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, and a well-deserved place in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame under his belt. Early in his career, the iconoclastic Delany offered something of a shock to the science fiction establishment, as the challenges posed by a young, African-American, openly gay writer (like Delany) were enough to induce the vapors among the generally close-knit community of American science fiction writers whose politics and prose were generally rooted in the safe conservatism of the Eisenhower Era’s industrial-military complex. Nova marked a turning point in Delany’s career, standing as the capstone of what we now perceive as his earlier, more linear narrative period. His next published novel, Dhalgren, didn’t emerge until seven years later, and it was wildly different from Nova in many aspects of tone — radically experimental and fulsomely, frequently graphic — though it remains an equally riveting work in its own right. “Chip” (as he is known to friends and admirers) has served as a member of the English Faculty at Temple University since 2001, and continues to occasionally publish through a variety of serial or standalone outlets, in both fiction and nonfiction formats.

When and where did I read it? I purchased this book for the first time in Leavenworth, Kansas, circa 1976, when Bantam Books reissued a lot of Delany’s 1960s titles following his return to popular trade shelves with Dhalgren. I know I got it at a mall bookstore where I used to go spend hours trying to figure out which science fiction or music reference/biography books I would purchase with my limited middle school resources, but I could not tell you, exactly, what it was that attracted me to it over other choices at the time. (It had a $1.50 price tag on it, so that might have had something to do with my decision!) Nova stuck with me as a great adventure story with awesome characters for years after I first read it, though I think I was really too young to understand many of its themes. So when I unexpectedly found a copy in the USS Austin‘s wardroom library during a trans-Atlantic cruise in 1983, I was very happy to read it again, and I have consumed Nova at least two and maybe three more times since then, getting something new out of it every time I read it.

Why do I like it? Nova fires on all cylinders for me, when you get right down to it: a bracing main narrative, an imaginative back story that adds to the richness of the central quest, a plethora of fantastic characters, spectacular settings that span the galaxy (but include known cities from our own home world), and loads and loads of thought-provoking asides, props, theories, images and quotes. I liked the space opera elements the most when I read it for the first time: driven (and possibly mad) ship’s captain assembles motley crew of weirdos and outcasts who pull together as a team to achieve things none of them thought they could. But in subsequent readings, I’ve come to love the strange combination of hard science and mysticism (e.g. characters consult tarot cards before deciding whether or not to drive interstellar space craft toward collapsing stars), and the nearly perfect malice of Prince Red, a truly great literary villain for the ages. The book’s dynastic political and economic themes are also richly developed, so that the history of the dueling Von Ray and Red families feels tangible and important. Nova has an entry in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, which it deserves, though I’d go further and list it as one of my personal Top Ten Novels ever, period.

A five sentence sample text: “Most people go blind in blackness. I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head. The light lashed the rods and cones to constant stimulation, balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full. That’s what I’m seeing now — then you, outlined here, highlighted there, a solarized ghost across Hell from me.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

 

Five by Five Books #2: “Skin” by Kathe Koja (1993)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Protagonist Tess Bajac is a talented metal sculptor who enters into a creative partnership with dancer Bibi Bloss and her posse of night (club) creatures. Their performing arts troupe — dubbed Surgeons of the Demolition — incorporates ever-increasing acts of ritual violence into their work, with Tess and Bibi’s collaboration resulting in a move toward powerful bio-mechanical syntheses. As their work grows stronger and finds its audience, Bibi engages in increasingly obsessive efforts to mortify her flesh through extreme body modification. Tess is torn by these developments: she knows that her work is achieving transcendence through her collaboration with the Surgeons, but she struggles to accept responsibility for — or to even want to be knowledgeable of — what Bibi slowly becomes. Skin is ostensibly a horror novel, but its grounding in a gritty, believable, industrial urban artscape lends it a resonance that few Gothic, fantastic, period, or supernatural horror novels achieve.

Who wrote it? Kathe Koja published five challenging speculative fiction/horror novels between 1991 and 1996, with Skin sitting smack in the middle of her initial print run explosion. Her first novel, The Cipher, won the Bram Stoker Award and was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, ably demonstrating how well many of her works straddle traditional genre definitions. After publishing a short story collection called Extremities in 1997, Koja embarked upon a successful career as the author of young adult fiction through most of the early 2000s. She returned to intense and evocative adult fare with 2010’s Under the Poppy and its recent sequel, Mercury Waltz. Koja is an ensemble member of Nerve, a contemporary creative troupe that has brought her written work to stage in florid, interactive, theatrical environments.

When and where did I read it? Late 1990s, when we still lived in our townhouse on Harvard Drive in Watervliet, New York. I discovered Kathe Koja on a Saturday morning back when Katelin and I would make a father-daughter visit to the William K. Sanford Town Library in Colonie most weeks, so she could hang out in the kids’ section and load up on an assortment of reading material for the week, while I scavenged the grown-up shelves for my own edification. On this particular Saturday, something had recently reminded me of William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat, which I had read in early high school days, so I went to grab and re-acquaint myself with that title again. Koja’s The Cipher was nearby on the shelf and caught my eye, so I grabbed it, checked it our, read it, and loved it. I then moved on through the rest of her early works from there, with Skin being the one that has retained the most resonance for me over the years.

Why do I like it? Kathe Koja does an absolutely extraordinary job of accurately portraying the shifting inter-personal dynamics associated with creative collaborations in evolving, amorphous or open group settings. I’ve read some reviews that criticized the “minutiae” of these interactions, but they feel very real, and they give the work much of its emotional depth and structural heft for me; this, of course, may be a function of my own experiences with such creative collaborative communities, but it works. As a long-time devotee of hard industrial culture of the Survival Research Laboratories and RE/SEARCH Publications varieties, (not to mention a fan of the garish Tetsuo: Iron Man), I was also deeply impressed at the care Koja took in exploring the motivations, manifestations, and ramifications of the creative bio-mechanical desires of Skin‘s protagonists. The story moves quickly, and characters flit in and out of the narrative (as happens in real life), and while you know early on that the whole thing is likely to end awfully, there’s a certain grandeur to watching the story arc play out to its inevitable conclusion. At bottom line, Skin is a wonderful oddball in my list of favorite novels, very different from what I normally read, and I applaud Kathe Koja for creating a powerful work that easily transcends genre stereotypes or expectations.

A five sentence sample text: “She remembered her real school, welding school: truck bodies and they had let her watch, they thought she was cute or something, had not driven her away. Hot, always, and the big ventilators going on and on and on, the endless revolution of blades big as bodies, rod and arc and the fountaining shine like stars ground to pieces, the endless eclipse one must not watch. Fascinated, silent, in roll-down pants and her hair skinned back, baseball cap and wanting to make the fire, make the metal run; she had never gotten over it, the idea of liquid metal. She remembered the smell of scorched clothing, heavy coveralls burned straight through, everything seen through the underwater gloss of welder’s goggle, the helmets most exotic; round-head spacemen with flat square eyes, the world’s most faceless mask. She had seen men — it was all men, only men — hurt, burned, once she saw a man drop the fluxless tail end of his welding rod into his low-cut shoe: hideous and funny his screaming dance; he had danced her into taped-up pant-legs as an article of faith.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

Five by Five Books #1: “Engine Summer” by John Crowley (1979)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Engine Summer is a post-technological road story about a boy named Rush That Speaks, who comes of age in a maze-like, clan-based community called Little Belaire. The story features a rich, anthropologically-sound depiction of a clan-based culture built around family “cords” and the art of “truthful speaking,” which precludes the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Rush That Speaks sets out on his coming-of-age journey after his beloved, Once a Day, leaves Little Belaire to join the mysterious Dr. Boots’s List. He hopes that his journey will set him on the path to Sainthood, although his understanding of what this might entail is fragmented at best. The story of Rush That Speaks’ travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside of Little Belaire is interwoven with a narrative conversation between the boy and an Angel, both seeking to better understand the other.

Who wrote it? John Crowley is a novelist, documentary screenwriter and academic, best known in popular literary circles for 1981’s epic Little, Big, for which he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. An early version of Engine Summer called Learning to Live With It was among Crowley’s first long-form works, though Engine Summer is actually the third book in Crowley’s canon by order of publication. Engine Summer was nominated for the both the British Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1980. Literary critic Harold Bloom has been a champion of Crowley’s works for many years, citing him as one of the 20th Century’s most under-appreciated writers. Crowley is currently a member of the English Department at Yale University.

When and where did I read it? I read Engine Summer in the early 2000s, mostly in our house on Cord Avenue in Latham, New York. I had heard of neither Engine Summer nor John Crowley himself until I read about the book and author in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. I was deep into a Philip K. Dick phase at that point, so I  went for a lot of the more “Phildickian” books (e.g. Alfred Bester, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazy) recommended by Pringle before I decided to tackle Engine Summer. I actually picked it up somewhat by default because I finally reached a point where it was one of the few books left on the 100 Best list that the Colonie Town Library stocked and which that I hadn’t already read. The payoff for my wait, though, was immense, and I consider it one of my favorite books to this day.

Why do I like it? Crowley’s successes with language, story-telling, and the creation of a rich and believable world in Engine Summer are almost unparalleled in my experiences as a reader. The story’s pacing is slow and gentle, but that feels like a direct and intentional depiction of a world that is slow and gentle, too . . . until it is not. The conversations between Rush That Speaks and the Angel are artfully done, and it is in this narrative that the book’s climactic reveal unfolds. It was so perfect once it resolved that I literally went back and re-read the book again, and experienced it even more powerfully knowing what was coming. This gorgeous, bittersweet, and haunting book stayed with me in active thought for months after I read it, and I still find myself unexpectedly musing about Engine Summer all these years on, hence this first “Five by Five Books” report.

A five sentence sample text: “Little Belaire is built out outward from a center in the old warren where it began, built outward in interlocking rooms great and small, like a honeycomb, but not regular like a honeycomb. It goes over hills and a stream, and there are stairs and narrow places, and every room is different in size and shape and how you go in and out of it, from big rooms with pillars of log to tiny rooms all glittering with mirrors, and a thousand other kinds, old and changeless at the center and new and constantly changing father out. Path begins at the center and runs in a long spiral through the old warren and the big middle rooms and so on to the outside and out in the aspen grove near Buckle cord’s door on the Afternoon side. There is no other way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is not Path: it’s drawn on your feet.”

ALL FIVE BY FIVE BOOK REVIEWS:

#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)