At some point--last year's WisCon, maybe?--I finally picked up the first two books in Le Guin's Annals of the Western Shore.
It took me a while to get around to reading them. Le Guin is my favorite author, but, I dunno, something about the YA look and feel of these books made me less than excited about reading them. (I think that even though I think of myself as liking YA stuff, in practice I don't read much of it and tend to assume that it's going to be a little too insubstantial, superficial, and/or easy in its conclusions. I realize that that's an unfair bias, and that there's lots of great YA fiction out there, and I'm very glad of that; nonetheless, sometimes it takes a little more effort to get me started on a given YA book than on a given adult book.)
And I wasn't thrilled with the first book, Gifts. Something about it felt off-kilter to me--the characters, the blindness/sight stuff, the "gifts" themselves, various aspects of the plot--none of it quite worked for me, at least not as well as I wanted it to. It was fine, just didn't really grab me.
So it took me a while longer to start the second one, Voices. And the first few pages of that one didn't grab me either, so I put off continuing.
But then a week and a half ago, I needed something to read on the plane (during takeoff and landing; the rest of the time I was planning to read submissions) on the way to Chicago. And most of the books on my to-read stack are hardcovers or larger-sized trade paperbacks.
So I picked up Voices. And I'm very glad I did. I ended up reading half of it on the flight to Chicago, most of the rest on the flight back, and the last hundred pages in dribs and drabs over the past week because I didn't want it to be over.
I love this book. Over and over, Le Guin keeps hitting the right notes, doing just what I want to see.
It's not quite perfect--there are a few minor aspects that I've rolled my eyes at, like the half-page or so of monotheism-bashing (polytheists good; monotheists bad) in the middle, and what I'm seeing as a not-entirely-justified change in the protagonist's attitude in one section toward the end, and a couple of aspects of the way the great families of the city are treated (that seem to me more in keeping with traditional high-fantasy tropes of noble rulers than with the culture portrayed in this book); and Memer reads to me as a little younger than 17 much of the time. But those are all nitpicks, minor issues that I can easily ignore.
And I love just about everything else about the book. It doesn't hurt that one of the major themes is the power of words, of Story, of reading. Nor that some of the language is gorgeous. And a lot of what I love about it is political--resisting the traditional high-fantasy narratives, giving us a less easy and more nuanced story, partially reflecting real-world events in places like Afghanistan and South Africa. But none of that would matter if not for my liking the characters, the setting, the backstory, the worldbuilding, and the plot, all of which are excellent.
In short, Voices ranks up with my favorite Le Guin books, and that's saying a lot. I'm not certain it's in my top ten favorites of hers--there's a lot of tough competition for those spots--but definitely in my top twenty.
And it stands alone quite well; you don't have to read Gifts first. But if you're going to read Gifts at all--and plenty of people like it a lot--then you should read it before Voices.
The third book, Powers, came out last year; I'm looking forward to reading it.