Fiction Reviews

The Gradual

(2016) Christopher Priest, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-473-20054-8


The latest from SF veteran and multi-award winner Christopher Priest, The Gradual takes us into familiar Priest territory. Weird things happen in a matter of fact way and the effects are gently explored.

The GradualThe Gradual is set in a fantasy world divided into two nations that appear to be constantly at war and a string of neutral islands – the Dream Archipelago, which has featured in many of Priest’s previous stories. It follows the journey of a composer, Alessandro (Sandro) Sussken, as he travels from island to island restlessly seeking purpose and meaning. The story begins when Alessandro is young: he dreams of the islands (he can see the closest from the attic window of his parents’ house) but knows next to nothing about them. The war has effectively isolated his country, Glaund, from the rest of the world. Glaund is a fascist state run on propaganda of great victories in far-off places – real information is rare. Faiandland, the enemy nation, is a shapeless bogeyman. And the islands are, to Sandro, inspirational mystery places.

Sandro’s older brother Jacj is conscripted into the war effort, but Sandro avoids the draft by taking a job which exempts him. Instead, he becomes a celebrated composer. The years pass but Jacr and his division remain at war and he is presumed dead. Sandro gets the opportunity to travel to the islands as part of a concert tour and embarks on a lifetime of ferry journeys, transit points and brief visits to distant places.

Without giving too much of the plot away, it’s safe to say that things start to get a little strange when Sandro starts his travels. Things are not what he expected, and things are not what they seem out in the Archipelago. Time can seem to go slowly when travelling. In the Archipelago, that can literally be true. Each ship has two clocks: ship’s time and absolute time and they can be hours or even days apart. And – gradually – the effects can build up.

On each of the islands he visits he encounters ‘adepts’, people who can compensate for the time displacements Sandro is experiencing, for a price, by manipulating the mysterious ‘stave’ that Sandro is forced to carry. Are they fleecing tourists or are they genuinely helping? Their remedies often involve seemingly abstract journeys and lengthy detours often delivered with sparse explanation and taciturn rudeness – neither Sandro nor the reader can fathom what is really going on, though the narrative is clear and understanding (or at least acceptance) gradually emerges.

Eventually? Sandro finds out a few things about himself and his world, certainties get deconstructed and we’re left with some cool ideas to mull over.

This is a time travel story with an original twist – fantasy rather than SF, with a strong first person voice and a compelling narrative. The plot drivers are not that powerful – find his brother, follow his art, travel to a distant island to catch up on lost love and to track down a plagiarist (just to say hello) – but the reader gets seduced by the journeys and the routine. This is hugely competent writing with layered meaning and intriguing ideas. Recommended.

Mark Bilsborough

See also Allen's take on The Gradual and also Arthur's review.

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