Le Guin: Gifts, Voices, Powers

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.

5 Responses to “Le Guin: Gifts, Voices, Powers”

  1. Dan P

    …I think I’m going to have to tell a brief story.

    Sometime in elementary school, some insightful adult noted my tastes in books and passed me John Christopher’s The White Mountains. I devoured the Tripods series, though not without some nagging disease about the less-than-triumphant denouement. Still, I had an author crush, and went on to dig up his less-known Burning Lands trilogy. I was immediately sucked in — prophecy! that turns out to be [minor spoiler]FAKE, and a techno-conspiracy, even — so sucked in that I kept reading through three books as (oh, I’m not even going to try to avoid spoilers on this one) the protagonist develops into a tragic character of nasty and re-compounded flaws. I got to the end, which I remember only vaguely as being some kind of inheritance of the wind, and was deeply disappointed.

    These books stuck with me, so much so that it’s quick and easy to tell this story from memory. I suspect that my interest in the underlying attitude that an SF/F writer takes towards power (and Power) had its seed in these books. I keep meaning to re-read them.

    I think that Gifts is that kind of book — not in the particulars but in the sense of knocking the wind out of a gleeful fantasy of power. It’s a book that an 11-year-old who’s been raised on Harry Potter might read and hate and, later, be grateful for having hated it.

    Voices is a much different book, and delightful for all the reasons you describe.

    I have Powers and would be happy to lend it to you.

  2. Dan P

    (I apologize, my too-clever-for-my-own-good attempt to hide a spoiler with white text on white appears to have failed.)

  3. jaipur

    Good to know, I’ll remember that if I see it. I tend to shy away from YA on principle, but Le Guin is always worth trying. (Though to be fair, I’ve been 2/3 of the way through _Always Coming Home_ since October. I just.don’t.get.it.)

  4. Jed

    Dan: Yeah, I liked the Tripods trilogy but didn’t care for the Prince in Waiting trilogy. Going by Amazon reviews, it looks like a lot of others felt the same way.

    My own experience has usually been that when I was a kid, I hated downbeat endings, and I didn’t like works that tried to Say Something Important. I wanted adventure and excitement and Heroic Heroes who saved the day in the end. And I still want those things, but these days I also want some depth. And so when I re-read certain books that I read as a kid, sometimes the ones I like best as an adult are the ones I liked least as a kid.

    And in fact, it’s possible that Voices falls into that category. I don’t know whether I would’ve loved it or hated it as a kid, but it does subvert various standard tropes of fantasy in ways that might well have rubbed me the wrong way. But it does that in ways that are exactly right for me now. (See also my entry about Le Guin’s “On the High Marsh” from a few years back.)

    So going by all of that, I would have expected to like Gifts as an adult too, for the same reasons. These days, I generally like it when a story undermines power fantasies. But somehow that book never quite came together for me.

    Jaipur: Fwiw, Always Coming Home is my least favorite of Le Guin’s books, and the only one that I’ve actively disliked. I admire the idea of the experiment, but I found most of the content kind of dull, and the “Stone Telling” sections far too heavy-handed. I gave up on Le Guin for, I think, a couple of years after reading that book, even though I’d been a lifelong fan of hers; I took it (and a couple of other then-recent works of hers that I read around the same time) as evidence that she was shifting toward mainly writing polemic. It took Four Ways to Forgiveness (possibly my favorite of hers) and Fisherman of the Inland Sea to bring me back to the fold and remind me of just how brilliant she is.

  5. Dan P

    (not that it contradicts anything else you said, but my point about the Prince in Waiting et. al. was not so much that I didn’t like them but that they ended up being much more powerful books to me, in the remembering. It’s an odd niche for a book to occupy, but there you have it.)


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