Carolyn Ives Gilman is not a very productive fiction writer. Like many people, she has a successful day job that demands a lot of non-fiction writing, and for all I know a family to look after as well. When she does produce a book, however, it is worth the wait.
She first came to prominence in 1998 with a fascinating science fiction novel, Halfway Human, that examines gender themes. I reviewed it here. Since then she has published very little: a novella (“Candle in a Bottle”) in Asimov’s in 2006 and a short fiction collection (Aliens of the Heart) in 2007, and Arkfall in 2010, a science fiction novel that was a Nebula nominee. I found Halfway Human intriguing, so when ChiZine told me that they were publishing a new novel by Ms. Gilman I immediately took notice.
Before I dive into the book, I should go back to discussing Gilman’s day job, because that will have bearing on how you view what follows. She is an historian, specializing in 18th and early 19th Century North America, and in particular the Frontier and Native history. She’s won a lot of awards for this, which makes her something of an expert on Colonialism and how it affects indigenous peoples. Isles of the Forsaken appears to spring directly from that study. To my relatively untutored eyes, the world she has built is more reminiscent of the South Pacific than of North America, but that’s not really relevant. The important point is that the book is a classic example of what Juliet McKenna talks about with regard to using a fantasy world to explore real world issues, devoid of all the baggage with which a novel about actual real world events would be encumbered.
We begin with the Colonial power. The Inning empire has just won a naval war against a rival state, Rothur. Admiral Corbin Talley is a national hero. The fact that his father, the Chief Justice, is one of the most powerful politicians in the country makes this a matter of concern for other men of influence in the capital, Fluminos. But Talley knows he couldn’t have managed it alone. In particular he is indebted to the ships of the Native Navy from the remote colony of the Forsaken Islands. Inspired by the wily Captain Harg Ismol, they adopted ingenious and flexible tactics that the conservative Inning and Rothur navies would never have countenanced. Talley means to have these clever islanders tied to his cause, or failing that to have them safely subjugated.
Island politics, however, is by no means simple. Before the Innings arrived, the Forsakens were settled by the Tornas, who subjugated the native Adaina people. With the arrival of white men, the Tornas have found value in collaboration, setting themselves up as the competent and responsible natives, in contrast to the supposedly feckless and lazy Adaina. Ismol is an Adaina, so promoting him beyond Captain would be regarded with horror by the Tornas. Unfortunately, many of the Innings can’t tell one dark-skinned fellow from another. The islands are currently ruled by a Torna governor, Tiarch, who is unlikely to welcome any extension of Inning influence.
That would be quite enough complication for one book, but this is fantasy fiction we are talking about here so there has to be more. Unbeknownst to the Innings, and largely secret from the Tornas as well, the Forsakens are home to small numbers of another race, the Lashnura. These people have actual magic powers. Their leader, known as the Heir of Gilgen, is the spiritual leader of the Adaina people. He is the only man entitled to appoint an Ison, a leader around whom the islands will unite.
Into this hideous political mess walks Corbin Talley’s youngest brother, Nathaway. He’s an idealistic law school drop-out, the sort of kid who, in our time, might be out occupying the streets in some financial district right now, and writing angry blogs about how the ruling classes (including his own family) are oppressing the poor. Except that Nathaway isn’t quite that disillusioned yet. He still has a charming and naïve belief in the Rule of Law, and he thinks that if he can only convince the poor, benighted natives of the Forsakens of the benefits of Inning culture then surely they will rapidly become civilized, just like white people. Nathaway is a disaster waiting to happen and, this being fiction, happen he duly does.
What we have here, then, is a complex political novel dealing with Colonialism written by someone who has a deep understanding of such issues. Consequently it is rather good. One of the things I like most about it is that almost everyone is shown to be fighting their own corner. Even the downtrodden Adaina keep the Lashnura in a state approaching slavery, for the Lashnura have something approaching a physical addiction to doing good with their magic. Other Adaina are more interested in casual piracy than in freeing their people from oppression. Nathaway is honorable but stupid. Only Ismol is both competent and selfless, and as a result everyone wants to exploit him.
For those of you wondering, there are plenty of women in the book, but because of the nature of the society being portrayed most of them have to take a back seat. Gilman does have a pleasant surprise in store for feminist readers, but I don’t want to spoil that for you by revealing it here.
One thing I am somewhat unsure about in the book is the fantasy element. It is useful in that it allows Gilman to show that the Adaina have faults as well, but the magical component escalates rapidly towards the end of the book and that points towards a resolution that is forced by external factors rather than being a product of the interaction of the characters. The other thing that somewhat irritated me was getting to the end and discovering that I had, at best, only half a book, and would have to wait for the next volume to find out how things do turn out. The good news for Gilman and ChiZine is that I very much want to find out what happens. Can I have the next book now, please?
Ebook editions of Isles of the Forsaken are available from Wizard’s Tower Books.
SF Encyclopedia entry for Carolyn Ives Gilman.