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A fine fantasy

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I remember reading Carolyn Ives Gilman’s Halfway Human back in 1998, thinking it very good, and then being somewhat disappointed when no further novels appeared from her. I later discovered she’d had a number of short stories published – chiefly in F&SF – and even a novella, ‘Arkfall’ (now available from Phoenix Pick here). There are also a pair of chapbooks from Aqueduct Press.

Last year, I learnt Gilman would have a new fantasy novel published by ChiZine Publications. I am not, it has to be said, a huge fan of fantasy. Too many strike me as too similar. Ripping off a different culture for the background, or implementing a new magic system, is not enough. But the description of Isles of the Forsaken seemed to me it might appeal. So I pre-ordered a copy.

I have now read it. And I was not disappointed.

The Inning Empire has just won a years-long war, and has decided to turn its attention to its colonial possessions, the Forsaken Isles. The empire is a lexarchy, which means it is ruled entirely by its Courts and legal system. Despite this, it’s not especially enlightened – in fact, the Innings as a race are arrogant and racist, and their colonial policies reflect this.

Harg Ismol is an Adaina, the lesser of the two races which inhabit the Forsaken Isles. The others, the Torna, are the dominant race and administer the islands in the name of the Innings. Also relevant are the Lashnura, or Grey Folk, semi-magical healers who can take away the pain and injuries of the islanders. The Innings do not understand this relationship, imagining the voluntary empathic bondage the Grey Folk undergo is little more than slavery. Harg had a good war, and rose to the rank of captain, the only Adaina to do so. Though he is offered the command of the Native Navy by Admiral Corbin Talley, head of the Inning Navy, he turns it down and returns home to Yora, an island in the South Chain of the Forsakens.

At which point, things start to go horribly wrong.

Isles of the Forsaken moves smoothly from a story about a disaffected hero returning home from war into a story about an archipelago-wide rebellion. This is driven by veterans having seen the rest of the empire, and by the Innings’ desire to finally “sort out” the islands. Harg is, of course, caught up in this, if not partly instrumental. Also important is Nathaway Talley, the youngest son of the Inning Chief Justice (and brother of Corbin), who is on Yora because he wants to introduce the Adaina to the benefits of Inning law. And there is also Spaeth, who was created as a companion by Yora’s lone Lashnura, but has yet to take on her healing responsibilites.

There are, however, one or two set-pieces in the book which feel a little contrived. Harg’s first run-in with the Tornan authorities, for example, seems a bit too well-designed to put him on the path the plot demands. Which is not to say Harg is not a well-rounded character. He’s a reluctant hero – while acknowledging that he’s best-placed, and has the necessary skills, to lead the islanders’ fight, he doesn’t want the responsibility of leading them into a war they would probably lose. And which would doubtless result in bloody reprisals. Further, there is an island myth about a leader, the Ison, who appears in times of need to lead the islanders to victory. Harg doesn’t believe he is the Ison, nor does he want to be him – part of the myth involves a “cleansing” by one of the Lashnura, which Harg refuses to undergo.

Nathaway’s transformation from idealistic naïf is better-handled, though it takes a while to get going. The Grey Folk, and the mythology which they represent, provide an interesting backdrop to the story, one which becomes increasingly important and relevant as the plot progresses. In parts, this mythology reminded me a little of Le Guin’s Earthsea books, particularly when Spaeth takes Nathaway to the “circles”, where the opposing balances which “rule” the islands manifest. The character of Tiarch, the Tornan governer of the Forsaken Islands, struck me as the sort of character Gwyneth Jones would write.

One section of the story which stands out takes place when Spaeth and Nathaway escape from Admiral Talley’s custody. They flee into the sewers beneath the city, but soon get lost and, somehow, cross over into another “circle”. This is one not even Spaeth recognises. It manifests as a series of mezzanine floors about a great well many many levels deep. Each level contains vast rooms in which are stored books and scrolls and other forms of document. The section is genuinely creepy, and the writing – which is good throughout the novel – is especially effective at getting this across.

Isles of the Forsaken is a post-colonial fantasy. Though the Inning Empire won its war, and is governed by what we would consider a fair and impartial system, the story’s sympathies plainly lie with the Forsaken Islanders. Of course, the Innings are far from the noble people their technology and political system would suggest. Nor are they the only ones who are racist – the Torna consider the Adaina to be nothing more than feckless and ignorant peasants. There are different ways of life on display in Isles of the Forsaken, and its ignorance about these among and between each group which is partly the fuel which drives the plot. The Innings’ lexarchy also comes under scrutiny. Theoretically an impartial and impersonal system with no real leadership, it is in practice dominated by the Talley family, and Corbin’s campaign in the Forsaken Islands is partly phrased as a launchpad for a bid for power by him back in the Inning homeland.

I read Isles of the Forsaken pretty much in two sittings. It may only be 312 pages long – definitely a point in its favour, given that it is a fantasy – but even so, I’ve not read many books in recent years which have dragged me into their story and kept me there quite so effectively. I’ve already pre-ordered the sequel, Ison of the Isles.

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8 thoughts on “A fine fantasy

  1. I haven’t read a fantasy work in years…. I did adore Jeff VanderMeer’s Shriek: An Afterword — have you read anything by him?

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