I enjoy taking chances on books by authors I've heard nothing about. Isles of the Forsaken by Carolyn Ives Gilman was one such book.
It took me awhile to read this book, although I *wish* I could have read it faster, I just suffered from lack of time. Overall, my impression is quite favorable.
I found the main characters (Harg, Nathaway, and Spaeth) to be mostly sympathetic, although there is something I still don't get about Spaeth and I hope we hear more about her in future books. (I'm not quite sure what it is I don't get about her, but it may be because she is a magically-created person, instead of having been born and raised in the normal way, and she's of a minor, almost mythical race, so in a way, she is meant to be alien, and she does seem alien a lot of the time.)
The main conflict of this book is of a colonial uprising against an empire. Harg represents the natives; he was in the navy of the empire, though a separate "native" section. He retires and hopes to go home and be done with the Innings (the imperial power) but he's drawn back into the conflict. Unless I'm completely missing the mark though, Harg lusts after many inaccessible women -- Calpe, who is married, Spaeth, who is also an inappropriate target -- when one who wants to be with him -- Tway -- is right under his nose. Nathaway is the youngest son of a family that holds several powerful positions in the empire -- his father is an important judge and his brother runs the navy. He's also a failed law student, though he believes the law is important. He represents imperial power at first, but as he spends time among the native islanders, he becomes drawn into events (sometimes he's manipulated) and starts to change.
Further complicating factors are that there are two races of islanders (Torna and Adaina), not just one. Most of the rebellion forces we see are Adaina, and there has always been some conflict between the Torna and the Adaina peoples. It seems to me that members of the Torna race are more often collaborating with the Innings, to the detriment of the Adaina. It was sometimes difficult for me to remember which characters were Torna, although it was easy to understand the differences between the two peoples.
I mentioned earlier that Spaeth was a member of a minor race, the Lashnura. She was created by another Lashnura, Goth, who is imprisoned and thus unable to be a major force throughout most of this book. The Lashnura are really the only ones who exhibit anything that could be called a magical power; through rites involving blood, they heal or remove the pain from others (this appears to be psychological as well as physical). They have a need to do this; if they don't, a blackness that begins at their fingers travels up their arms and will eventually kill them. They also seem to take some kind of joy in it. Others tend to want to use them selfishly, which is perhaps not surprising.
Spaeth struggles with this; when Goth was around, he performed all of these functions for the locals. When he's gone, the people start demanding it of Spaeth, and she is resistant for a long time. It seems to be mostly Adainas who interact with the Lashnura in this way. Meanwhile, the Innings, who have an empire of laws, do not support the practice. Most of this particular conflict happens early on, between Spaeth and Nathaway, but larger events in the world (and changes in Nathaway) push this element of the plot to the side relatively early on. It's not dropped, exactly, and it's not bad that it's pushed aside, I'm just stating a fact.
Side note: I get a little confused by "dhota" and "bandhota" and all the terms related to Lashnura blood rites. I can follow it enough to have a general idea of what's going on. And I suppose it's good that the reader is not beaten over the head with repeated explanations of these concepts, as I do hate it when that occurs in other books. I think if I keep reading this series, I'll eventually have it straightened out.
There are gods, or forces like gods, in Isles of the Forsaken, two sets of opposing groups, one of which seems generally beneficent and one which seems more maleficent, although there is a sense that the motivations of these groups are not human, and I expect to see more development of concepts surrounding them in the sequel(s). I do like the idea of these forces or groups of forces instead of artificially-created gods, which to me are much less believable and much less enjoyable to read about. (Made-up religions usually end up having concepts from Christianity or some other religion renamed and repurposed and are not particularly original. So I'm glad Gilman stays away from that.)
Gilman is a historian and I think she brings that experience to bear in creating the world of this novel. Apparently she knows quite a lot about the Lewis and Clark expedition, has even written a book on it. The level of technology in Gilman's world includes guns, which is fine if it's done right (Gilman does it right, I think). Her descriptions of forts and tactics to take them make sense, seem as if these events could've happened in real life. So this is one case when research was done -- or facts were just already known -- and it makes the world much more cohesive and believable.
I like Gilman's writing style; she's good at sneaking in a lot of little details that make the world believable and the reading experience much more pleasurable.
All-in-all, I thought this was a great book and I'd recommend it to most fantasy readers out there.