Now this is how you write a fantasy novel about the British Empire

We're still living in the shadow of the British Empire, at least as far as a lot of science fiction and fantasy novels go. From Steampunk reimaginings of British explorers to magical versions of nineteenth century England, the sun pretty much never sets on books about the British Empire. But it's rare to see a book that tackles colonialism — which, after all, is the main reason we're still dealing with the aftermath of British imperialism — in a smart, interesting way.

Enter Carolyn Ives Gilman, a professional historian and author of a book on Lewis and Clark. Her new fantasy novel, Isles of the Forsaken, is like a tutorial in how to write about colonialism and magic. Plus it's an insanely fun, fast-paced read that will appeal to fans of both Ursula K. Le Guin and George R.R. Martin. Spoilers ahead...

Isles of the Forsaken is one of those books that serves up plot twists with blinding speed — to the point where the characters and story are defined by the surprising choices people make. Gilman takes a situation that a lot of authors would have milked for pathos or tragedy, and manages to make it fun and exciting instead, largely by virtue of fast-paced and surprising storytelling.

This is Gilman's first novel since Halfway Human, back in 1998 — although she's published some novellas and novelettes back then, including the Nebula-nominated Arkfall in 2010.

Now this is how you write a fantasy novel about the British Empire

In Isles of the Forsaken, the Inning Empire has just won a huge war, and now they're moving on to their next agenda item — subduing the Forsaken Islands, a chain of islands that the Innings have technically laid claim to for decades but haven't ever exerted complete control over. And one key member of the Inning navy, Captain Harg Ismol, is actually a native of the Forsakens, as well as a cunning military strategist. Harg is offered a promotion to Commodore, so he can help the Innings to subdue his former homeland.

Meanwhile, Nathaway Talley, youngest brother in the most powerful Inning family, travels to the Forsakens to become a justice of the peace. He hopes to spread civilization to the heathen natives, helping them to understand why the Rule of Law is so important. And he wants to help destroy their superstitious practice of bandhota, a ritual healing magic which involves drinking the blood from one of the Lashnura, or grey people. Nathaway is as naive as he is certain of his correctness, and you can tell from his first appearance that he's heading for trouble.

The third protagonist in the book is Spaeth, one of the grey people, who's been created to be a healer like her "father," Goth. But Spaeth isn't sure whether she wants to become a virtual slave to people who rely on her healing properties, and she starts to question all of the stuff she's been told about her place in the world. Goth, who created her out of his own body, has gotten into the habit of giving his blood to everyone in their town, so that now nobody ever gets sick or dies, and Goth is bound to everyone he heals. Everybody seems to think that Goth went overboard — but there's no clear sense of how far Spaeth should go in healing people. And meanwhile, she's being visited by the Mundua, spirits of chaos and imbalance that the grey people have historically kept at bay.

The stuff I've mentioned above is just the set-up — it's not the plot of the novel, which kicks off pretty quickly and never stops racing forward. I don't want to give any major spoilers here, because it's more fun to discover all the surprises in this novel for yourself. Suffice to say that this is a rollicking adventure, which manages to consider a lot of weighty issues along the way. The Ursula K. Le Guin influence is very obvious — this is anthropological fantasy, in which the meetings between different cultures raise interesting philosophical as well as cultural issues.

But it also reminds me a bit of recent fantasy epics along the lines of George R.R. Martin, in that the magical elements are kept very much to the background, and the political maneuverings are front and center. Except that this book moves a lot faster than A Song of Ice and Fire — it almost has the opposite problem, in that sometimes events happen so quickly, we don't quite feel their weight.

The greatest strength of this book is its complex worldbuilding. The natives of the Forsakens aren't a monolithic bunch at all — there are the Adaina, who are more independent and live on the outer islands in a more traditional fashion. And then there are the Torna, who live on the inner islands and have long been under the Innings' thumbs, although they have a native Governor, named Tiarch. And then there are the Lashnura, the grey people, who are a small minority, fading in number and influence as the Innings control everything.

But even beyond those ethnic divisions among the natives, there's also a ton of diversity — no two people view the political situation in the same way. Everybody has their own view of the Innings, from outright rebellion to collaboration. There are pirates, who just want to seize cargo and get rich, and there are freedom fighters. And there are natives like Harg and another naval officer, Joffrey — yes, unfortunate choice of name — who are steeped in Inning military tradition and understand the Inning way completely.

We see less of Inning society in the first book, but here, too, every Inning is different, and views his or her own culture in different ways. We also glimpse enough of Inning politics to understand that there are huge power struggles going on, and that not everybody is happy having the Talley family in charge.

And there is a huge philosophical divide between the Innings and the peoples of the Forsaken Isles, which forms the center of the novel — the debate between the impartial, impersonal rule of law, and the native belief in Mora, which is roughly speaking the amount of pain and bitterness in one's soul. The natives believe that if you help someone to get rid of bitterness, they'll be a better person or even a good leader, but the rule of law is based on the idea that there are no good people, only good rules.

About two thirds of the way into the novel, the Lashnura named Goth has a memorable debate with Nathaway Talley's older brother Corbin, who's an admiral and kind of an insane badass. Goth contends that people can be redeemed through spiritual practices, and this can lead to a good society. Corbin Talley retorts that people can't be redeemed, an that's why we need laws:

If I could find just one genuinely good man in this world, then I could rip down all this mummery, burn the very courts; they would no longer be necessary. But that day will not come. There are no good men. Many are called good, but they all have some taint of pride, or self-indulgence — elementary faults I even deny myself.... Inning law is even-handed but inexorable. If you drop a china dish, it will break. If you break the law, you will suffer. It is very simple.

This is accompanied by Corbin Talley showing Goth two captured rebels, who are being tortured to death in the most gruesome manner imaginable. Goth wonders, "What kind of man would perform the inner surgery it must have taken to make himself capable of such acts?"

The debate, between the rule of law and the web of life, is underscored by some very neat juxtapositions of native and Inning sensibility and design. In another passage, around the same time, Goth travels down a hallway in a former Torna palace that has been turned into an Inning headquarters:

The corridors of the palace were quiet; it was just past daybreak. The two soldiers escorting him set a fast pace, heading into a part of the building Goth had not entered up to now. It had been recently remodelled. The dark, musty corridors had been broadened, lightened, and furnished; the archaic Torna motifs had been stripped from the walls; the thick, stocky pillars had been replaced with shapely, fluted columns; all irregularities had been smoothed over and made symmetrical. It was a more Inning place now. Goth felt the lid of the safe box-world of logic close over him. Here, everything was shaped like a diagram. These straight lines and perfect circles would never admit a breath of duality or serendipity. Dream and luck were locked outside. Here, there was only one answer for every question.

Now this is how you write a fantasy novel about the British Empire

After reading this volume, I'm dying to read the second volume — which, luckily, was published back in April.

The biggest flaw in this book, unfortunately, is the fantasy element. As I mentioned, Gilman keeps the magical elements mostly in the background, similar to the way George R.R. Martin and some other authors handle them. Unfortunately, magic turns out to be an important plot device in the book, and some of the biggest plot twists happen due to magic — and they seem to come out of nowhere. There were a few times, reading this book, where I felt as though I wasn't entirely sure what was going on. In particular, the spirits of chaos, the Mundua, turn out to be incredibly important but they're not built up enough to make me feel them as a huge threat before they suddenly start wreaking havoc. The mysticism in the book could also have used a few more scenes where people explained exactly what the beliefs of the Yora are, before we start seeing Spaeth's role as a grey person being debated. The political stakes in this novel are always crystal clear — the fantasy stakes, however, are considerably less so.

That said, if you're looking for an exciting fantasy adventure that brings some nuance and a new cleverness to our oft-told stories of the British Empire, then you should definitely check out Isles of the Forsaken. This is one of the most ripping, page-turning fantasy novels I've read in ages, and the pace pretty much never lets up. Gilman manages to raise lots of interesting questions, not just about colonialism but also about spirituality and society, and doesn't feed you any simple answers. Plus there are sea battles and a talking panther. Definitely worth picking up.