Islands by Marta Randall
There are two types of sci-fi books: those where the technology is a center-piece, and those where the technology exists to enable conversations about humanity. Islands by Marta Randall is the latter.
I was a little afraid of Islands. The back copy mentions that in a future world where mortality has been defeated, Tia Hamley is an anomaly. The [immortality] Treatments didn’t work. She alone will grow old and die.
I don’t normally dig on such heavy topics—I read for fun. And yet I read it anyway, because it was on my shelf and if I was going to read it anyway, I might as well read it now. ‘Now’ being late on a weeknight. I had planned on reading a few pages just to grease the wheels and then going to bed. Thirty pages later, I was struggling to not start the next chapter.
The story starts off incredibly human. We get to know Tia as she is now—a 60-something year old woman, much wiser than her peers thanks to the knowledge of her eventual death. We get to see Tia young and convinced of her eventual immortality. We get to see her shortly after the Treatments fail, morose and unplacatable. We see her lover(s), her friends, her experiences. The world is decidedly sci-fi, but the focal point of every scene is Tia and her connection to those around her—or, more often than not, her lack of connection.
For most of Islands, this feels like the extent of the plot. The back copy promised more—something to do with finding a secret power buried in a sunken building—but I was entirely content to wait on that. Just watching Tia was enough.
Why it was enough is hard to articulate. A good amount of it has to do with how expertly Marta Randall weaves her characterization. There’s the obvious quality of it—characters are clearly fleshed out and full of contradictions and nuance. There was something more, though. Each character felt like a puzzle. There were the things we obviously knew about them, and then there were the gaps, the incongruities, the sticky-bits. Every time I learned something new about a character, it held all the satisfaction of putting another piece into a puzzle.
Then there was the quality of the prose itself. It would have been so easy for poor Tia, the lone mortal, to come across as whiny. She thinks of mortality, she talks about mortality, she researches both mortality itself and how the people of the past faced mortality. She really digs in, and yet I wanted to read every word because the languid beauty of the prose itself elevated these (very real to us) concerns beyond Tia to humanity’s general search for meaning, for comfort, for stability.
So many times I’d finish reading a paragraph and pause, thinking how beautiful it was, and yet I could pluck no easily tweetable line to underscore its beauty. Without the whole, the individual part just didn’t shine, but with the whole, it was so evocative and heart-breakingly beautiful that I feared I’d start crying on the bus.
Even though I generally don’t like things that are emotional or, well, human, I would have been entirely content if Islands stayed this course until the back cover. The aforementioned sunken power eventually surfaces, though, and with it a plot that’s more than Tia’s relationship with herself and her world.
Naturally, I won’t discuss the ending, but I will say I don’t love it. It’s not so bad, though, that it affects my love of everything leading up to it. It’s just ... well, I can’t say anything. I’d spoil something somehow and the book is absolutely worthy of a read, regardless of the ending. Besides, I’ve read a few reviews that specifically loved the ending, so my issue might not be yours. If you love character-centric books written with poetic beauty, read Islands.
I have a TW, now, but it’s also a bit of a spoiler. As someone who often doesn’t do well with TW-worthy topics, I will offer up-front that I was both able to weather the depiction and felt like going into the scene blind added to the moment. Obviously, though, you gotta do what’s best for you.
The next paragraph is the spoiler:
There is a depiction of domestic violence within a relationship with an extremely fucked-up person. The violence is not drawn out, glorified, or sugar-coated, but there is a level of perversion that is beyond the norm.
Cover art by Vincent di Fate (at least, according to here. There’s no note of it on the book itself)