When Nathaway Talley, emissary of an imperial power, interrupts a healing ceremony on one of the islands his nation controls, the furious healer, Spaeth, stalks away from him. Nathaway, a law student who believes in the power of reasoned argument, runs after her. He wants to talk, but Spaeth stops him short. "I have nothing to say," she tells him. "I only have things to do" (p. 91).
Like Spaeth, Carolyn Ives Gilman's novel, Isles of the Forsaken, has things to do. Gilman sets up a complex political situation involving four nations: the imperialistic Innings; the Adaina, who inhabit the "Forsaken Isles" controlled by the Innings; the Lashnura, a small minority with unique healing gifts; and the Tornas, who form a middle power between the Innings and the Adaina, weaker than the former but stronger than the latter. The story concerns a revolt of the Adaina against their Inning colonizers, and both political and military strategy get plenty of attention. The main characters come from different nations: Nathaway, the naïve,well-meaning colonizer, is an Inning; Spaeth is a Lashnura who can heal others by shedding her own blood; Harg, a former officer in the Inning "Native Army," is an Adaina; and Tiarch is the leader of the Tornas. The novel traces Harg's transformation from a disaffected ex-soldier to a rebel leader. Along the way, Nathaway loses his illusions about colonial paternalism, Spaeth struggles with her healing gift and the demands it makes on her, and Tiarch, caught between the powerful Innings and the increasingly politicized Adaina, decides where her loyalties lie.
That's a lot to manage, and Gilman's characters don't have much time for small talk. Conversations, even among characters who have just met, tend to go straight to the point: either we're supposed to learn something about the characters' cultures or political leanings, or an actual political maneuver is in process. Spaeth and Nathaway's first exchange moves quickly from remarks on some boulders—whose presence Nathaway tries to explain by logic, while Spaeth relies on myth—to a blunt question from Nathaway: "So it is your duty to perform the sacrifices?" (p. 32). Spaeth is not slow to explain her views on sacrifice, and to defend Goth, her mentor and the current "dhotamar," or healer: "A dhotamar gives willingly, as a gift to those he loves. . . . It is a beautiful act, a sacrifice of loving kindness, and Goth is honored for it" (ibid.).
The protagonists' penchant for explaining themselves enables the plot to move quickly, but doesn't communicate nuances of character. This plot-centered approach also affects the narration of the novel, which is high on action and low on atmosphere. The reader of Isles of the Forsaken will travel from island to island, among communities shaped by different cultural practices, without getting much of a sense of place: aside from the opening pages, which convey the joyful atmosphere of the Inning capital after a victory, scenes are described with a few efficient words. Of course, one of the most celebrated strengths of speculative fiction is its ability to make space for thinking big, to expand the focus of the novel from the bourgeois concerns of traditional realist fiction to a consideration of large-scale movements and transformations. Sometimes these broad technological or sociopolitical shifts are represented with sensory detail and rich emotional content—the work of Ursula K. Le Guin is an obvious example. But if Isles of the Forsaken doesn't quite get there, it does remain true to its own aim, which is an inquiry into the development of an anti-colonial struggle. The book's cover art is well chosen: stark and monochrome, it features none of the highly colored human figures common on fantasy covers, and shows instead a stormy sky and rough stones rising from the ocean. This is a book about the big structures, not the details.
And on the big stuff, Gilman is excellent. A professional historian specializing in eighteenth and early nineteenth century North American history, she brings an understanding of historical forces to the creation of her alternate world. Gilman works on frontier and Native American history, and certain parallels with the world we know emerge in Isles of the Forsaken: the Inning colonizers are fair-skinned and fair-haired, while the oppressed nations are darker; the people of the Forsaken Isles believe in and sometimes talk with gods, while the colonizers admit no such possibility, and worship only the law. The links between cultural belief and historical action could probably stand to be complicated a bit more, but the changing relationships between the nations are satisfyingly messy. Harg, the Adaina rebel, has fought on behalf of the Innings; the Tornas respect their Inning conquerors more than the Adaina, their logical allies. Both of these forms of complicity with the ruling power are true to life, and increase the interest, as well as the challenges, of Harg's rebellion.
There is also some sharp observation of the workings of power and prejudice. Early in the novel, while Harg is still in the Inning Native Navy, he is promoted to commodore for his service; the Inning admiral, in order to persuade Harg to participate in the invasion of his own homeland, welcomes Harg into the Inning Navy rather than the Native Navy, an unheard-of honor. Harg refuses the promotion, leaves the navy, and goes home, where after getting involved in a brawl, he is arrested for theft. He can't figure out at first what he is supposed to have stolen. Of course, it's the epaulette of a commodore in the Inning Navy, which the admiral insisted he keep. No one can believe that the admiral would have given it to an Adaina.
Isles of the Forsaken also delivers a thoughtful and intriguing portrayal of the practice of "dhota," or healing. The philosophy behind the practice involves the preservation of the balance of power. Spaeth's people, the Lashnura, have the gift of healing others, but they are not able to make the pain disappear. Instead, they shed their own blood and take the pain upon themselves. According to Spaeth, this is how it should be: "pain is what balances the scales of nature," she tells Nathaway. "It has been woven into the fabric of this world since it was first created" (p. 89). Nathaway, who considers Lashnura healing barbaric, disagrees: "Pain is something we create ourselves, out of ignorance and malice" (ibid.). Yet Nathaway is also concerned to preserve balance against the forces of chaos: "that's why we have laws," he tells Harg (p. 164). As for Harg, the balance he seeks is political: "Political situations are so complex and unpredictable you can set off cascades of consequences you can't foresee. We're always just one wrong move away from chaos" (p. 164). The depiction of different characters who all want the same thing, but imagine it in very different ways, enables Gilman to explore the power of culture. She is true to all of the cultures she creates: gods appear in the novel, and we see them and hear them speak, because Spaeth does. When Spaeth is prevented from practicing healing, she suffers a physical disease. There is no sense that it's all in her head, or that some worldviews are more "real" or legitimate than others.
The one element of Gilman's world that seems inadequately imagined is language. She presents four nations scattered among islands, but they all speak together with ease. It's hard to imagine that such different societies would share a common language, and there's no indication of whose language they're speaking. Since language, and language loss, is a major part of the history of imperialism, the omission stands out. There are also some odd notes in the dialogue: characters swear "Ashes!" (p. 104) but also "Holy crap" (p. 124). At one point a pirate who wishes to insult Harg sneers that Harg won "the Battle of Drumstick"; Harg quietly corrects it to "Drumlin" (p. 120). The pun is entertaining, but it suggests that the characters are speaking English.
The language issue aside, the world of Isles of the Forsaken is a highly complex and functioning structure, and the plot provides plenty of twists, as the characters strive to make their way through the labyrinth of history, and, if possible, to change its shape. Rumors of the rise of an "Ison" or leader of the islands appear at intervals throughout the book, a hint toward the subject of the sequel, Ison of the Isles (2012). While the action of Isles of the Forsaken comes to a satisfying conclusion, it's clear that things are far from over yet for the anti-Inning rebellion, and that the second book will have plenty to do. Isles of the Forsaken does a great deal, offering lively action and political seriousness: a treat for readers who, like Harg, desire "to surf on a great grey wave of history" (p. 105).
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2013. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.