We have been to Tim Lebbon's fantasy land of Noreela before, most recently in the excellent Fallen, so I was keen to revisit for more of the same but one thing I have learned is that Tim Lebbon doesn't do " more of the same". The setting may be familiar but once more Lebbon shows that he is one of the most inventive genre writers around.
Set almost entirely around the small fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks this is a book that focuses more on characters than locations. Kel Boon is the main protagonist, a seemingly simple life is thrown into chaos by a tsunami and the subsequent appearance of a mysterious Island. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Kel Boone is anything but a simple woodcarver and gradually his background as a secret agent in the Core (think Noreelan SAS) is revealed.
When the inhabitants of "The Island" start to arrive in Noreela it's Kel Boon and partner Namior that suspect something is not quite right. What follows is a race against time to protect the people and traditions of Noreela. The story has elements of steampunk, fantasy, science fiction and horror but is, deep down, a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
There is little of the epic sweep of Fallen here, though it does share a common sense of mystery, this is all about survival. Survival from a feared but largely unknown antagonist. There are elements here that could almost reflect modern politics as a technologically advanced nation threatens to overrun a much less advanced and far more traditional lifestyle.
In Tim Lebbons usual skillful prose style he keeps the pace moving by gradually revealing more details throughout the book. This coupled with the inventiveness of the setting made this a pleasure to read. If anything it was too short leaving quite a few questions but also leaving the way clear for (hopefully) sequels.
It's not quite as powerful as Fallen but that may just be down to my preference for epic quests but once again we are given a unique snapshot of life in Noreela which pushes fantasy to its boundaries and often beyond. It may have swords and even sorcerers (well witches) but this is about as far from traditional fantasy as you could get. Lebbon's stories almost take on a mythic quality mixing the genres up in a suitably strange and potent brew.
Tim Lebbon's name keeps cropping up in chats with speculative fiction fans, so when I saw this book on the shelves, I decided it would be worth a read.
Kel Boon thinks he has managed to escape his past as an agent in the secret organisation the Core, protecting the blissfully unaware Noreelans from the threat of the lizard-like Strangers - creatures from beyond the known world capable of untold destruction. In the sleepy fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks, Kel has become a woodcarver, leaving fighting behind and forming a tentative relationship with trainee witch Namior. But a storm is brewing and at its centre the witches sense something dark and deadly. What follows the wake of the storm threatens the Noreelans' very way of life. With the people and land he loves in terrible danger, Kel quickly realises that he cannot escape his past.
Yes... I know it sounds fairly run of the mill - but it isn't. For starters, Lebbon is excellent at delivering tension-filled fear without slowing down the action - partly because he is an extremely competent writer who keeps all the action centred around Kel and Namior. The terrible storm and the havoc it wreaks on the fishing community is very well portrayed as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the devastating waves that sweep away their homes, families and livelihoods. Kel is conscious that he doesn't belong as he watches everyone around him grapple with the enormity of the disaster - and it is that sense of detachment, along with his Core training, that has him already alert for any possible threats. That and the inexplicable disappearance of magic... This tale is a real genre mash-up - dark fantasy, swords and sorcery and steampunk. I have seen claims that it qualifies as science fiction, but I personally think that there would need to be more emphasis on the technology to tick that box. Not that it really matters - it doesn't stop this being a cracking read. While Lebbon has written other books set in this world, he has ensured that it is a standalone novel, so no one will find their enjoyment blunted by picking up this book before visiting any of the other Noreela books.
Kel's character leaps off the page right from the start and his hopes, personal demons and increasing concern at what is happening was, for me, the reason to keep turning the pages. Namior, his lover and young witch who has been born and raised in the small community all her life, wasn't quite as strong. She certainly suffers in comparison to O'Peeria, Kel's former Core partner. Although we only learn about O'Peeria in flashbacks through Kel's point of view, the gutsy, foul-mouthed fighter immediately engaged my attention and loyalty in a way that Namior didn't until much further into the book. However, this is a minor niggle and didn't stop me staying up way into the night to discover what would happen next.
Lebbon can definitely weave an engrossing tale, full of menace and punctuated by bursts of sudden violence. I enjoyed the fact that though Kel is a trained killer, the fight scenes are less about swashing buckles and much more about the gritted business of surviving any encounter without major injury or death. The world-building is exceptional and I loved the descriptions of the island and the stricken fishing village, which were depicted with cinematic clarity. Overall, this is an outstanding tale. Now knowing why Lebbon is regarded with such respect by committed speculative fiction fans, I will be looking for his other work.
With The Island, Tim Lebbon has established himself in my mind as a good writer that isn't afraid to try something a little different. His previous effort, Fallen, was an enjoyable adventure romp with some excellent characterisation and a healthy dose of mystery. More than that, it was a good example of how Lebbon approaches familiar storylines from different angles, and conjures up something a little bit different. Fortunately the same is true of The Island - a very different book to Fallen, yet imbued with the same solid characterisation, flowing prose and general freshness.
Kel Boon and Namior Feeron are well-developed protagonists; Lebbon flits with ease from one perspective to the other, building a believable relationship dynamic between the two. Kel's background is skilfully revealed through a series of flashbacks that never halt the momentum of the story, and his character arc peaks nicely as he struggles between his dual loyalties. Namior at first seems little more than an emotional foil for Kel, yet she turns out to have a few secrets of her own. Lebbon works these revelations into the story very well, without them seeming contrived or unrealistic.
Despite the limited geographic scope of the novel (90% of the story takes place in the fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks and its immediate environs) Lebbon manages to make the setting both intriguing and dynamic enough for the story's requirements. Noreela is proving to be an interesting place, and as in Fallen Lebbon reveals little touches here and there that make the world all the more detailed (my favourite was the fish that can be played like a pipe!).
The only real criticism I would level at The Island is that I feel - like Fallen - the ending is a little underwhelming; there's an aspect to the resolution of the plot that just felt a little cheap to me (not to mention rather unlikely). But this flaw aside, Lebbon deserves credit for constructing a well-constructed plot that unfolds at an even pace, with a really fresh feel to it (I personally can't recall reading anything particularly similar) that mixes suspense with emotional gravitas and some good old-fashioned brawling. It's always nice to read a novel where I don't have the faintest idea how it's all going to end.
Lebbon's prose is another strong point - perhaps not as lyrical here as it was at times in Fallen, but as always it's crisp and fluid, striking a perfect balance between exposition, description and action.
Verdict: An enjoyable addition to the 'Noreela' series, featuring a world that becomes more intriguing with each novel. The Island is a fast, entertaining read that makes a good argument for why you should be reading Tim Lebbon's work.