I love the sea, but panic in deep water, and so find a happy medium on shorelines, where I can walk in land and water all at once. I’m drawn to threshold places, to landscapes in flux, to anywhere that captures two states in one space. Islands give me what I love of the ocean: a sense of magic, of otherness, of endless possibility. Islands are hemmed in by themselves, their own coasts marking their constraints, and yet they are boundless, everchanging, living landscapes. The air feels thicker on islands, dense enough to push aside and slip between, thick enough to fold. Surf rushes in your ears and salt gathers on your tongue. Anything can happen on an island. For me, at least, all islands are fantasies.
Snake Ropes by Jess Richards
A waking dream caught in the pages of a novel, this island fantasy entwines the lives of two strange girls as their worlds at first expand and then begin to fall apart. In the vein of the best magic realism, the island is a place where the extraordinary becomes ordinary, with waking houses, talking dolls and strangers from the sea. Jess Richards is an artist and Snake Ropes is a work of utter magic.
The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw
The wintry archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land is the setting for this magic realist coming-of-age tale. Ali Shaw captures both characters and landscapes caught in stasis, woodlands and frozen fens in hibernation. Magic flits between the branches, drifts of jellyfish light the icy waters, and Ida McLaird is slowly turning to glass. Ida’s search for a cure reopens old wounds but also brings the chance of redemption, her journey across the island taking her from heart-stopping danger to nothing less than true love.
The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
A massive influence on me (and most of my generation of Scottish writers) this gruesome little novel is set on a tiny island off the coast of Scotland, exploring ideas of identity, isolation and release. Teen narrator Frank holds dominion over his own coastal kingdom, wreaking terror on the animals and children that cross his path. His array of violence, loathing and torture is cut through with startling, cloudburst moments of wonder. The fantasies here are in Frank’s head, showing themselves in dreams of power, destiny, salvation, control. This was one of the books that inspired me to write, more than a decade before I actually started.
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan
Not one island, here, but scores of them—the scattered archipelago of Kirsty Logan’s dreamy debut is all that remains in a flooded world, where life is governed by boats and boundaries. Singing for their supper, a ragtag circus ship drifts between the last remaining islands, the crew simmering with passions and resentments. Logan’s novel explores not just the physical borders of these islands, but also the emotional space we cast about ourselves. The Gracekeepers is a sumptuous thing, braided with glitter, grit and wonder.
This is not a book, but I can’t think about fantasy islands without returning to Koholint. With hindsight, Link’s Awakening on the Game Boy has been as big an influence on me as Terry Pratchett or Anne Rice. The game is rooted in the extraordinary fabric of Koholint, an island of caves, dungeons, cliffs, tunnels, deserts and woodlands. The cast of characters includes befuddled fishermen, weeping mermaids and melancholy ghosts—while Link’s journey weaves the threads of sleeping legends, secret seashells and magic boomerangs. I think books are empathy engines—Link’s adventure on Koholint was one of my first lessons in truly caring about a character.
Originally published in January 2016.
Simon Sylvester is a writer, teacher, and occasional filmmaker. After working as a camera assistant and journalist, he began writing fiction, and his short stories are published regularly in literary journals. He lives in Cumbria with his partner and their daughter. His novel The Visitors is available from Melville House.