Filler content with Rusty and Dusty

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

WANDERERS AND ISLANDERS
Steve Cockayne
Orbit pb, 278pp, £10.99

Cockayne’s debut novel is set in a rather rough and ready reality never referred to as anything other than The Land, a venue that has a Gormenghastian feel to it, but without the rich texture of that work. In many ways it’s a blend of our own world and some other, simpler milieu. The Land is ruled by a King and there are references to a distant war, allusions to religion and mythology, folklore and legend. It’s a place where magic is respected, but technology also has a role to play; there are motor vehicles and the court magician is made redundant by what sounds suspiciously like a computer.

Cockayne has a surfeit of viewpoint characters, three main and several subsidiary. Victor Lazarus is employed by an unknown party to make a great house habitable, a task in which he is at first hindered and then helped by an entity residing in the house’s attic, a being with an agenda of its own in which Lazarus is paramount. The boy Rusty Brown is told a great secret by a young girl, one of the fabled race of Wanderers, which he forgets but will remember when his life is in deadly peril. Rusty travels the world with his faithful dog Dusty (yes, honestly), going off to the big city to learn to be a cartographer, running with a pack of feral children, finding inner peace at a mysterious school, eventually returning to the village of his birth. Finally there’s Leonardo Pegasus, obsessed by the girl Alice, at the start of the book the King’s counsellor, and at its end a potboy at an inn, still working on his Multiple Empathy Engine, a device that will put its user in touch with the feelings of everyone in The Land. The lives of these three overlap in tenuous ways. There’s the suggestion that the house in which Lazarus works is actually part of Pegasus’s psyche. Rusty flits in and out of both worlds, moving from one to the other with ease and blissfully unaware.

This is billed as ‘Legends of the Land: Book One’, and wears its status as curtain raiser badly. Cockayne’s writing is workmanlike rather than graceful. There’s no depth of feeling, no grittiness to the prose, no telling details to stamp events with the mark of verisimilitude. The characters are as two dimensional as their names would suggest; they never came off the page and made me feel they were anything more than creatures of fiction. The Land itself is a patchwork structure, as if Cockayne is making it all up as he goes along rather than filling in the details of some grand design.

Set against this banality there’s the complexity of the plot, with the suggestion of worlds within worlds and the hint of metafiction, intriguing philosophical concepts such as that of the well-shaped future. Yet there’s an artificiality about all this, intrigue arising not out of genuine mystery, but nurtured through having the characters not ask any of the obvious questions about what’s happening to them. I’ll admit to having my interest mildly piqued, but not in a way to give me faith in the writer’s ability to deliver something more substantial in future volumes. There’s so much here you don’t know, that in the end you don’t care either.

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