Carolyn Ives Gilman is one of the genre’s most sociopolitically insightful writers. Her fantasy novel Isles of the Forsaken (2011), the first volume of a two-book series, brings more evidence of this to the table. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in a chain of mysterious islands called the Forsakens, where tenuous imperial rule by the dominant upper-class Innings is about to get more hands-on. This rankles the native islanders, which include the collaborationist middle-class Tornas, the peasant Adainas, and the Lashnura, or “Grey People,” who possess strange magical powers. Years of tenuous, distant rule have kept things peaceful, but as the Innings move in to exploit the region, the place is primed for revolution. Three key participants in the Forsakens’ transformation serve as Gilman’s protagonists: an Adaina Navy man named Harg Ismol, who spent years earning his stripes in the Innings’ Native Navy; a well-intentioned Inning justice named Nathaway Talley, who comes to the islands to tout Inning law; and Spaeth, a Lashnura woman the local Adainas wish to enslave for her magical abilities, but who has other plans for her life.
It’s a complex scenario, and Gilman gives it considerable depth and richness, drawing convincing lines in the sand between her various factions and cultures. Within the broader political dilemma, her characters have complex motives and tactics for navigating events, and serve as convincing and sympathetic viewpoint characters. The novel delivers magic, intrigue, and high seas adventure, while under the surface is insightful subtext about gender, race, and especially class, a thought-provoking mirror. Occasionally modern-day language breaks the spell, I think, and it struck me that really this is just the first half of a much longer novel. But those were the only drawbacks, for me, in what is otherwise a highly satisfying read that left me eager for more.