Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Carolyn Ives Gilman - Isles of the Forsaken

Carolyn Ives Gilman's book Isles of the Forsaken is a clever and original work of fantasy. At its core are the intertwined stories of four characters, each hailing from distinctive races. The story is set at a time when the population of the Forsaken Islands are beginning to rebel against their imperial masters. The Adaina who live on the Forsaken have been ruled for many years, their islands, to a greater or lesser extent beginning to lose their individuality, but at the same time the more under-developed country is beginning to develop itself. Alongside the technological and economic development is a growth in self-identification that pits itself against the colonial rulers.

In the real world, one of the common themes of the encounters between people from different countries is that those from technologically advanced places tend to misunderstand the beliefs and world-view of those they are meeting. This is done brilliantly in this book as the naive Nathaway Talley arrives in the Forsaken Islands to teach the "natives" about law and order. He believes that the rule of law correctly applied and obeyed can create perfect social relationships. What he doesn't understand is that the Adaina have a society that makes them fairly happy. Nathaway crashes through the lives and social relations on the Islands, misunderstanding ceremonies and beliefs and dismissing ancient traditions of magic as unscientific backwardness. There are some clever moments in this. One section of the Adaina are the magical Lashnura. A small number of individuals, they can heal other Adaina by donating blood. In doing so they can become dhotamar to others, near permanently associated with another individual. Nathaway cannot comprehend this as anything other than an act forced upon the Lashnura. He sees them as slaves, victims of sacrifice and mutilation by the rest of the Adaina population. The reality is the exact opposite, but Nathaway, coming from a strict hierarchical world were everything has a price and violence is used to obtain what is unobtainable cannot easily understand what is taking place.

Such behaviour has many parallels in our own history. The interactions between Europeans and indigenous peoples of North and South America for instance. Gilman is a historian of North American history and clearly has based her fiction on the historical events she studies. But the brilliance of Gilman's novel is that in her universe, the magical beliefs held by the Adaina are real and Colonial rule is disturbing a carefully balanced order between different religious forces. It is almost as if when Europeans had started to take the land from Native Americans, they had been able to fight back with magic and gods, rather than just their weapons.

Apart from the dynamics taking place between oppressed and oppressor. There is a finely told adventure story here as the Adaina begin to revolt against the colonial rulers. Gilman writes well and the action sections of her novel are as exciting as the rest of the book is gripping. I recommend this story of national-liberation with magic, and look forward to the sequels.

Related Reviews

Gilman - Ison of the Isles

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