Wanderers and Islanders by Steve Cockayne
List Price: 10.99
Paperback - 288 pages (7 February, 2002)
Orbit; ISBN: 1841491209
Review by John Berlyne

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This is a pleasant if curious debut from new British fantasy writer Steve Cockayne. In Wanderers and Islanders we have three separate stories running concurrently. It is difficult at first to see how these three disparate plot strands relate to each other, but slowly and delicately, Cockayne weaves them together to produce a novel that is, at times, both entrancing and baffling, comic and heart-breaking and ultimately feeling rather than thought provoking.

The opening story concerns an upstanding retired military man, one Victor Lazarus who is employed by a mysterious benefactor to oversee the renovation of a secluded and dilapidated house. Victor sets about his task with his characteristic officiousness but slowly becomes aware of an invisible and malevolent presence intent on thwarting his efforts.

In a country village, we follow the growing pains of Rusty Brown, the small carrot-topped boy who makes friends with a young gypsy girl. She tells him a secret that he doesn't remember, but that shapes his life from then on.

At the Great Palace, the eccentric court magician, Leonardo Pegasus tinkers with his arcane and mysterious Multiple Empathy Engine but is finding that his science is being replaced by the power of the Corporation. Scholarly and rather unworldly, he becomes infatuated with his young and shapely assistant, Alice, and this serves to hasten his fall from grace.

There is no faulting Cockayne's story telling. His style is direct and simple, yet very engaging. He seems as equally comfortable writing pathos and humor as he is at dealing with myths and violence. Likewise he proves highly versatile in the tone of each individual story. The house in which Victor Lazarus delegates feels initially very much like something out of Lovecraft. The young boy's rites of passage are beautifully observed. There is a solid connection between the reader and Rusty and we truly feel for him as he falls in love or experiences great loss. The social ineptitude of the magician Pegasus is both amusing and painful to witness. All three stories compliment each other.

Cockayne also manages to evoke an intriguing and very British setting. It certainly isn't at any time called Britain and there are no direct references, but these stories occur in a world of green fields, pipe smoking professors and cups up tea with cake. The Great Palace becomes modernised and thus strangled by its own bureaucracy (a reflection by Cockayne perhaps on the state of the British Broadcasting Corporation where he worked for five years?) It is more Colonel Blimp than, say, Keith Roberts's politically angled Pavane, and it certainly gives a nod to William Blake. The title refers to the central philosophy that runs through this book and Cockayne subtly explores this central tenet making this very much an allegorical rather than a simple narrative work. Societies are made up of both wanderers and islanders; those that travel and explore, and those that remain, their function to maintain what is known lest it be forgotten. Individuals within society though, perform these functions according to their circumstances, making each person both wanderer and islander, sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both. The concept is a poetic one, romantic rather than epic, and this gentle novel succeeds in a market generally dominated by novels in which action is driving force. Sometimes we hanker for a little reflection in our reading, a time to ponder the universals, to think of higher things  Wanderers and Islanders gives us an opportunity to do just this.

2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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