Tim Lebbon’s Noreela books, starting with 2006’s Dusk, are books that have always caught my eye but I somehow never managed to find the time to read. The same can also be said for Lebbon collaborations with Christopher Golden. Now, however, it seems I’ll need to pay a little more attention to Lebbon’s work as I found The Island to be highly entertaining and thrilling blend; a lot of fantasy with a dash of both science fiction and horror made for some interesting reading and I’ll be curious to see where Lebbon takes Noreela in the future.
After a failed mission results in the death a number of innocent children, and his commander and lover, Kel Boon deserts the clandestine Core and hides himself in the fishing village of Pavsmouth Beak. He makes his living there as a woodcarving, falling in love with the local witch Namior feels he has finally escaped his past. Unfortunatley the sudden disastrous appearance of a mysterious island could possibly be the alien threat that the Core has been trying to thwart and Kel Boon must once again take up the mantle of soldier and determine the nature of the threat that this island represents. Read on for more though be warned that minor spoilers are inevitable…
The thing that strikes me most about The Island is Lebbon’s deft hand at crafting a unique threat and his ability to cloak that threat in trappings familiar to the characters in his world. In Noreela, inhabitants use a blending of artifice, magic, and the natural world to create partially organic machines to aid them in their day to day (and extraordinary) activites. The strangers when they arrive employ machines as well, though absent of the naturalistic and magical trapping that the Noreelians employ. The inhabitants of the island (Komadia) that visit Pavsmouth Breaks look the same as Noreelians. Combined with the tidal waves the accompany Komadia’s sudden appearance and the shock the damage those waves infict upon the villagers makes there acceptance of the seemingly genuine Komadian’s assistance wholly believable. Absent of his foreknowledge that a threat from outside the world of Noreela exits, Kel Boon would likely be just as suseceptable to the Komadian’s claims of guilt and forthright desire to aid the beleagured villagers.
But, of course, Kel does know of this threat and that leads him, and Namior on a quest to uncover just who, or what, the Komadians truly are and what their real motives are. It is this quest and the idea the threat from “beyond” that colors the novel with an element of the wierd and what truly made me enjoy it the most. While the early half of the novel is more or less entirely rooted in the fantasy genre Kel’s early description of the gilled and tentacled Strangers gives the reader an early glimpse at what is in store. The expectation (or anticipation) of the Stranger’s appearance outside of Kel’s flashbacks is something that Lebbon plays with as soon as the Komadians arrive but, in an excellent narrative decision, Lebbon defers their appearance instead choosing to build upon the tension generated by the Komadians amicability and drops meager hints about the potentially nefarious activites of the visitors outside the village proper.
The full-on shift into weird territory is presaged by a tense chase through the mysterious cave system near the village that plays with elements more common to horror than fantasy and I was particular struck here (and elsewhere in the novel) with Lebbons control over olifactory description. We are all, I think, familiar with the comforting scent of the ocean (though I suppose there are some people out there who hate that beach smell) but Lebbon manages to transform the post-tidal wave Pavsmouth Break into a foreboding wasteland twisting the familiar and comforting into something else entirely. In the cave sequence the smell of the ocean is undercut by the smell of rotting meat and the comforting sound of wave becomes the booming roar of some hidden beast and finally our first encounter with what is actually a Stranger occurs upon a mound of corpses. This scene transitions into our heroes’ exploration of the island itself and here again Lebbon plays with line between fantasy and horror. Our heroes encounter the merely fantastic (a chameleon like beast, a blue-skinned humanoid) before they are confronted with the truly horrific: the pool where the Strangers are “born” and the nature of the Komadian’s themselves. It is nice back and forth shift that Lebbon achieves here creating an intentionally jarring effect to enhance the impact of these twisted scenes.
While I loved the wierd elements of the story I found that the character elements weren’t quite up to the same standards. While I’m not beyond enjoying a bit of melodrama in my fantasy I didn’t find the Kel/Namior relationship completely believable; perhaps because we don’t really get to know them too well as a couple before disaster strikers. On the other hand I enjoyed the flashback sequences where we meet Kel’s former lover/commanding officer O’Peera and the exploration of the impact of secrets on relationships is well-done accross with multiple characters throughout the novel. Lebbons handling of characters in The Island wasn’t bad but the novel really shines in its description of otherworldly environments and objects; and in the pace which Lebbon unfurls his plot.
If you’re looking for a genre-blending novel that combines elements of fantasy and horror than you need look no further than The Island. If you haven’t read any other Noreela books, fear not, since this is a stand-alone book that requires no foreknowledge of the other novels. While I’m not sure I’m going to go back and read the rest of the Noreela books I am sure that I’ll be keeping an eye on any future works by Lebbon; whether they take place in the world of Noreela or not.