Alesandro Sussken is a composer living in Glaund, a fascist state constantly at war with another equally faceless opponent. His brother is sent off to fight; his family is destroyed by grief. Occasionally Alesandro catches glimpses of islands in the far distance from the shore, and they feed into the music he composes. But all knowledge of the other islands is forbidden by the military junta, until he is unexpectedly sent on a cultural tour. And what he discovers on his journey will change his perceptions of his home, his music and the ways of the islands themselves.
...[a] powerfully disorienting and brilliant novel ... Priest works a series of meditations on memory and inspiration, on the relationship between place and art. The Gradual is a time travel story, but one unlike any other I have read...[Priest] carefully constructs a much more filigree, intricate structure to embody its temporal slippage, and it is very much to Priest’s credit as a writer that this always feels coherent ... amazing, haunting, eloquently baffling and clever.
The Gradual doesn’t satisfy in the classic fashion. It’s relatively eventful at the outset, but less and less as the novel progresses. It doesn’t have much momentum, and in its slow moments seems positively stodgy. It’s confusing before it’s clear, maddening before it’s mysterious. You’ll come out of the singular experience of reading it with more questions than you went in with—but read it you should, to be sure, because like a dream, baffling though it may be, it really could renew you. Intellectually, yes—the extraordinary ideas The Gradual explores are, as ever, brilliantly belied by the plainness of Priest’s prose—but also intimately ... The Gradual is a great many things—exhilarating, frustrating, hypnotic, semiotic—but above all else, it’s an inspiring novel about inspiration.