Usually fantasy or scifi novels about colonial situations only include 2 peoples. Laurie J Marks' Fire Logic includes a representative of a third, slaughtered people, who may have relatives offstage. I can't think of another fantasy novel that has 4 peoples pushed together in excited interaction. Nathaway is an Inning, whose people have just defeated Rothmur in war, and goes to the chain of islands to teach the natives about Inning law and to outlaw bandhota, the ritual healing ceremony. The people of the North Chain are Tornas, dark-skinned people with different features than the Adainas of the South Chain. The Inning have been using the Tornas to govern and exploiting Adaina-Torna resentment to keep them divided, similar to what the British did with different tribes in their African colonies. Harg, the captain of the Native Navy that won the war for the Innings, is the only Adaina officer in the fleet - until he leaves for home. He finds Tornas constructing a lead smeltery on his island, Yora, while his 3rd parent, the Lashnura healer Goth, has disappeared, leaving only Spaeth, the girl Goth created for a lover.
Spaeth, although a Lashnura, has never performed bandhota, which creates bindings of love that trap the healer into what is possibly slavery. She spends her days wandering the island, missing Goth, and talking with panther-shaped Ridwit, a god of the Mundua spirits and ancient enemy of the Lashnuras. Spaeth is the only Lashnura he respects - unless he thinks he can use her. The Mundua and the Ashwins are the spirit forces of disorder, over whose war our world is delicately perched while the Lashnuras heal to create balance. Then Spaeth meets Nathaway, scion of the most famous family in the Inning land, and shatters his orderly world. When Nathaway is presumed dead, Harg is charged with his murder and propelled with Spaeth to flee Yora and venture up the chain to the island of Thimish, where the pirates and a small rebellion are sitting with fire in their hearts, and to Tornabay the capital, where Tiath, called the iron woman, sits as governor and jockeys for power with Nathaway's admiral brother. Where the volcano sits with the fire spirits in its heart. And where Goth, the religious figure known as the Heir of Gilgen, has been forcibly removed from his long exile on Yora to be a pawn in the admiral's and the governor's games.
Can the islands be a free nation? An equal province? Which islands? Will the spirits of disorder break free? Factions in the rebellion quarrel and Joffrey the triple agent negotiates for the supposedly united Governor Tiarch and Admiral Talley with Harg while Nathaway and Spaeth explore the real world under our world and Goth slowly dies without his bandhotai whom he's given healing to. This will not end until at least the to-be-coming sequel, Ison of the Isles. I didn't know there wasn't going to be an ending until a few pages beforehand....needless to say, the stopping point is a bit dramatic. Although most everyone is out of immediate danger.
I want the sequel now! I love this book. Gilman has improved in a stellar fashion since her Tiptree Award-nominated debut novel Halfway Human. And I liked that one...