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Carolyn Ives Gilman's Isles of the Forsaken was one of my favorite books of 2011. I was therefore excited to find out that the sequel, Ison of the Isles, was out.
It's not a bad book -- I'd recommend it, and read to the end of this review to find out why -- but I'm not as enthused about Ison as I was about Isles. Couple of brief reminders from the previous book, that should help you throughout the rest of this review: islanders consist of Tornas and Adainas, two distinct groups who have banded together for a rebellion, though there are some inter-group tensions. There are also Lashnura, who ally themselves, generally speaking, with the other islanders, and who have some spiritual and/or mystical healing powers. Lashnura are quite rare.
Part of the problem may be something that stems from my own personal taste. There are a lot of naval battles in this book, or at least there seem to be. The islanders are at war with the Inning Empire and since island territories are the prize of war, naval battles are to be expected. Now, Gilman is a historian, and I have no doubt she wrote accurate descriptions of naval warfare. But I am just not interested in accurate descriptions of naval warfare. I tended to gloss over these sections. If you like that kind of thing, well, then this book is definitely for you.
But let me back up a bit. The first couple of chapters were about Spaeth (a Lashnura woman) and Nathaway (an Inning man who has "gone native," so to speak), and I was really interested in what was going to happen with them. Then we moved to Harg's chapters, and while I was interested in him as a character, unfortunately, his chapters in the early part of the book were all naval battles (Harg, by the way, is an islander who used to be in the Inning Navy but who has become the leader of the islanders' rebellion). I put the book down for awhile because I just didn't want to read more about naval battles.
From a technical/editing standpoint, the writing was fine pretty much everywhere. As far as the narrative goes, I feel some aspects were confusing and some questions were left unanswered, though it is my understanding that this is a duology and there will not be a sequel. (Correct me if I'm wrong, as I would love to read a third book in the series.)
Note: this paragraph might contain a minor spoiler. Skip on down to the next one if that concerns you. First of all, in the midst of Harg's chapters, we hear Joffrey and Tiarch (two islanders who had been naval officers under the Innings, then joined the revolt) considering returning to the Inning side of things. I think the story would've been better if we hadn't expected Joffrey to betray the islanders the whole time. If it had come to us as a surprise, as it did to Harg, the sense of desperation that resulted would've been stronger.
Also, I'm not entirely satisfied with the resolution given to Nathaway's brother, Corbin Talley. He experiences a change of heart at the end that doesn't make sense to me. I can believe such a transformation would be possible, but not literally overnight. Corbin's character is pretty firmly established throughout most of the book. So this made it feel a little like Gilman was in a hurry to end the book. (And it was a pretty short book at 297 pages.)
Goth (another Lashnura, and Spaeth's creator) wasn't as well-used in this book as he could have been. Gilman clearly had a purpose for him, and he fulfilled it in the end, but she kept writing scenes where he was wandering in some kind of drug-induced dream world and then in the waking world, he would have a conversation with Corbin. These scenes didn't end up being so important to the book's conclusion, they seemed mostly to serve to remind the readers that Goth was still around. He's looking more and more haggard every time he's dragged out, but he manages to hang on. I guess Goth's scenes were just too repetitive for my taste.
So, this was not Gilman's best book. It felt rushed to me. But, there are some areas where Gilman really shines. One of these is the whole issue of "primitive" natives versus the civilizing influence of the Innings. The values and morality of each civilization are just different, and people from each culture act for widely different reasons. The actions the different groups think will be efficacious, are completely different actions. (Sorry for the repeated use of the word "different," by the way.) Now, maybe this is because I come from a place that's more like the Inning civilization than the island civilization, I don't see how the things the islanders do (suffering and things of a more mystical nature) are going to have any effect, whatsoever. And maybe that's why the Innings win, in the end. And it does make you think about what values and traditions could be lost in the march of civilization across the globe.
But my favorite part of the natives-versus-civilizers conflict was when Spaeth goes out in a boat and seeks spiritual intervention. She sends a lightning storm and Corbin builds lightning rods. She sends change to the water which looks at first like blood but is revealed by Corbin to be a bloom of microorganisms. I just thought this whole exchange was really done well, and in a way gets at the heart of the anthropological distinction between magic and science and how different cultures treat natural phenomena.
I enjoyed the scenes with the attorney and in the court; it was a way to give Harg his moment and to inject a bit of levity to something that was otherwise rather dire.
Read Isles of the Forsaken first. If you then want to find out what happens to the characters, continue with Ison. I know I didn't like everything about the narrative structure of the book, but so many fantasy authors are so cursory and improbable in their treatment of native peoples that I really feel the need to say something when an author gets it right, and Gilman does that here.
I'd rate this book 3.5 stars but will round up to 4. I intend to seek out more fiction from Carolyn Ives Gilman, for sure.