The White Isle: The story of Prospero gone bad

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe White Isle by Darrell SchweitzerThe White Isle by Darrell Schweitzer

Readers familiar with Darrell Schweitzer probably think of him mostly as someone who writes short stories, edits magazines and anthologies, and writes books and essays about speculative fiction. But he’s written a few novels, too. The White Isle, published in 1989, is one of these, though it was originally serialized in the magazine Fantastic in 1980. It tells the story of Prince Evnos of Iankoros who we meet as a boy and follow into madness.

The story is divided into two parts. In the first section, Prince Evnos is born, raised, educated, married, and sent off to war. When his wife dies in childbirth, he is enraged, so he learns to be a wizard and descends into the underworld to get her back. In the second part, he lives a miserable life on a rocky island with his unhappy daughter.

As Darrel Schweitzer reports in a 2003 interview with G.W. Thomas, The White Isle was his “attempt to write tragedy” when he was in his early twenties. The story was inspired by the Orpheus myth, Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Isle of the Torturers” and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (he says “it is the story of Prospero gone bad”). The premise is that “Life’s a bitch and then you die. The afterlife is worse…. everyone goes to Hell.” Not surprisingly, then, The White Isle, which is written in an archaic sounding style, is bleak and depressing.

The misery is somewhat alleviated by some wonderful imagery, especially when Prince Evnos is in the underworld. The story reminded me of Tanith Lee’s FLAT EARTH books with its dark underworld mythology, decadent visions, and lack of a hero, but while Lee writes gorgeous prose which elicits powerful emotions, Schweitzer’s prose is dull and detached. That, unfortunately, was its downfall. With misery heaped upon misery, it needed something more to lift it up.

I listened to the audiobook version produced by Wildside Press. It was narrated by Martin Gollery who has a pleasant voice, but whose interpretation, inflection, and tempo was not of professional quality.

As I learned in the interview with G.W. Thomas, Schweitzer considers The Mask of the Sorcerer to be his best novel-length work. I look forward to trying it, but I can’t heartily recommend The White Isle.

Publisher: Darrell Schweitzer’s first novel is a powerful tale of Prince Evnos of Iankoros, who seeks to reclaim his bride from the God of Death. Rich with strange sorceries, grim mythologies, and hostile gods, this is a tale of heroism and horror, seeming triumph and subsequent tragedy, and strange turns of fate which none of the characters could possible foresee. It is a modern classic reminiscent of E.R. Eddison, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Lord Dunsany … and yet uniquely the author’s own.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  1. Tristan Braeley /

    Hi Kat, I’m happy to say that The Mask of the Sorcerer is indeed *much* better than this book. I’ve read both… sort of. I gave up on the White Isle after getting about half way through it. The Mask of the Sorcerer is in my opinion, more of a four out of five star book.

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