Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Ison of the Isles (2012) concludes the duology started in Isles of the Forsaken, and it’s even stronger – more vivid, more complex, and more compelling, as the revolution begun in the opening volume escalates into war. The remote Forsaken Islands have united under charismatic warrior Harg Ismol, who has mended the divide between the Adainas and Tornas in order to fend off a common enemy: the hated, upper-class Innings. Led by the ruthless Corbin Talley, the Inning military has perverted justice in the name of conquest, and launched an all-out assault on the Isles. Harg’s resourceful and unpredictable defense scores some stunning victories for the underdog natives – and elicits vicious reprisals. Harg’s impossible position makes him the most loved and hated man in the islands, ultimately forcing him to pursue becoming the islands’ Ison. But this requires the magical assistance of the mysterious Spaeth, whose entanglement with a well-meaning Inning justice, Nathaway Talley, complicates his path to true power – and jeopardizes the defense of the islands.
Characterized by spotless narrative, rich world-building, thorny dilemmas, rousing action, and insightful sociopolitical commentary, Ison of the Isles is a breathtaking book and a more-than-satisfying conclusion to the series. It’s filled with memorable, riveting setpieces: Harg’s first naval victory, his speech to the crowds in Lashnish, Nathaway’s judgement, and Harg’s trial all stand out, gripping sequences of high drama. This is a high fantasy scenario with a historical vibe, but it’s also a thought-provoking reflection of present world conditions, with insight into class, race, spirituality, sexuality, justice, and more. Gilman continues to impress and inspire, further climbing the ranks of my favorite writers. Highly recommended.