Reviews: Gifts, Voices, and Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

reviewed by David Bratman

Ursula K. Le Guin, Gifts. San Diego: Harcourt Children's Books, 2004. ISBN 0-15-205123-6, hc, 288 pp., $17.00. Reviewed by David Bratman. Reprinted from Mythprint, November 2004.

There's an old English folk song called "The Twelve Witches," whose subjects each had some specific weird talent, almost useless by itself but powerful in combination. I was reminded of it by the "gifts" of this book's title. In a rural society of landlords and tenant farmers, the lords have these supernatural talents that are passed on genetically in the male or female lines. Most of them are pretty gruesome. Gry, a teenaged girl, has a female gift of calling animals. This is normally used to assist hunters, but Gry loves animals and refuses to use her gift to kill, much to her mother's scorn. But Gry is not the protagonist of this story. This is Orrec, a boy of Gry's age who is the first-person narrator. His male line's talent is called the undoing, and is entirely nasty.

What with the lords of neighboring estates having equally destructive gifts, and the border tenants on hair-trigger alert against cattle-rustling and similar tricks, this is not a stable society. Orrec's father, Canoc, must be constantly vigilant to protect his lands and tenants, and be ready to use his gift when necessary. And, of course, he trains his son to follow him. But Orrec finds he cannot control his gift, and as it is exercised through the eyes he has his father blindfold him until he matures. In the process, Orrec begins to reject altogether what his father finds a necessary evil.

The story begins with Orrec and Gry hosting an outsider, a refugee from a more urban culture without the gifts, and fearing those who do. This chapter sets up the situation; we then jump back in time as Orrec tells of his childhood and how he came to be blinded, then move quickly past the time of the opening chapter and on to the shattering conclusion. As a YA book it's fairly short, with few words per page, and makes compelling and urgent reading. There are death, loss, and destruction here. Le Guin is not always a plot-based writer, but even more than The Other Wind, this is a captivating story, and above all a tense, suspenseful one.

But it is also a wonderful portrait of characters. Orrec loves both his parents, and they him. While his mother is an outsider by birth and remains a bit bewildered by the society she's joined, and while there is inevitable conflict between Orrec and his father over the gift, the remarkable thing is how well they get along and express their love. Some feminist writers seem content to criticize men without explaining what they think a good man would be like. (Let's not even get into what some male writers say about women.) Le Guin isn't like that. Orrec, poised between necessity and a kind of pacifism, is a beautifully modulated portrait of a conflicted boy, all the more wonderful for being written in first person by an elderly woman author. Even more remarkable to my mind is the portrait of Canoc, the father. Thoroughly masculine, he is tough, commanding, ruthless when necessary. But he knows when to be diplomatic with his neighbors, patient with his son, tender with his wife. There is one horrible moment when Orrec thinks his father has tricked him. But overall, this is a good and decent man but one who is not emasculated.

As for Orrec and Gry, and their childhood friendship slowly opening to the possibility of romantic love, they are somewhere in between Owen and Natalie of Very Far Away from Anywhere Else and Hugh and Irene of The Beginning Place in the development of their relationship. Le Guin shows it as a dynamic, changing thing. They support each other - sometimes literally as Gry helps Orrec adjust to blindness - and learn together. She raises dogs, and gives him some for his own. In all this Le Guin writes with the greatest command and subtlety. I say, for instance, that Orrec loves his parents. But nowhere does Orrec say such a thing so baldly. Le Guin shows it instead. This is what a good writer does. It's reviewers who must crudely summarize.

The names in Gifts are ugly. This is probably deliberate. A tough, non-pretty society will be reflected in its names. Still, a big bullish man called Ogge Drum goes directly into the silly names bin. That's my only quibble with this remarkable story.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Voices. San Diego: Harcourt Children's Books, 2006. ISBN 0-15-205678-5, hc, 352 pp., $17. Reviewed by David Bratman. Reprinted from Mythprint, August 2006.

This novel is advertised as a "companion" to Gifts (reviewed here in November 2004). It's a sequel of sorts; its relationship to Gifts is rather like that of The Tombs of Atuan to A Wizard of Earthsea. It takes place some years later, in a different part of the same lands, and includes some of the same characters, but it's not a direct follow-on, and the viewpoint character is entirely new. In each case the first book's viewpoint character is a young man and the second book's is a young woman. But both Gifts and Voices are first-person narrations as the Earthsea books are not.

In Voices the narrator is Memer, a 17-year-old girl who lives as a servant in the home of the man who was the last independent elected leader of a city that's been living under an oppressive military occupation all her life. The occupying force, the Alds, have only sent male soldiers: no women and no settlers. They let the locals go about their daily lives, but have imprisoned and tortured many of the inhabitants. They practice a harsh monotheism (unlike the natives, who are casual polytheists). The occupying general seems distant, but proves to have a sensitive soul and marries a native woman. In most of these things the Alds resemble the Condor from Always Coming Home, and there are occasional hints suggesting that the author might also be thinking of the Americans in Iraq.

The one thing the Alds absolutely forbid is written language. It is against their religion. Memer's lord keeps the last hidden stash of books in the city and has taught her to read. The "voices" of the title are the silenced voices of those who formerly read from the books and spoke for the oracle that exists in the hidden library. It is clear that Memer's destiny is to be one of those readers for her people. Her conscious goal is to free her people; her unconscious one is to fulfill her destiny.

The plot gets going with the arrival of an outsider, a reader who need not use books though he loves them. He is Orrec, a renowned oral storyteller from the distant northern hills, who comes with his wife, Gry, a tamer of "half lions" (cougars, perhaps) and other animals. Orrec and Gry are the principals from Gifts, now married and grown to middle age. The events of that novel, and the mysterious gifts of its title, are only dimly alluded to here. Memer knows nothing about that, nor need the reader. For all his fame, Orrec is shy and withdrawn. None of his stories are included in the text. He knows nothing of the hidden library. He would like to help the people of the city, but wishes not to become too involved for fear they will take him, an outsider unfamiliar with their ways, as their leader. As Orrec is welcome among both the natives and the Alds, he acts as a bridge between them. But he is purely a catalyst, an agent who starts events without becoming involved himself.

Memer respects Orrec, and becomes friendly with Gry. But her deepest relationship is with her lord. He treats her as his daughter, and as much as anything this novel is a portrait of a truly healthy and loving father-daughter bond. It is also a portrait of mentally and morally healthy politicians. The lord was an elected official, and the people still look to him for leadership. Some other characters are also political leaders of the city folk. They know how to lead and inspire; they hold meetings to discuss what the city as a whole should do. That makes them politicians. But they are not pompous, or crooks, or traitors. They illustrate what politicians do at their best, and show that every community needs some.

Voices is a genre fantasy only at the edges. The locales and the peoples are totally imaginary; the oracle has supernatural characteristics but has even less flashy stage magic than the Mirror of Galadriel does. There is less concern about magic than about the practical problems of a large household feeding and housing unexpected guests. (As a fantasist concerned with housekeeping, Le Guin joins hands with Patricia McKillip.) It is, simply, a novel about a maturing girl who gains her confidence and knowledge of her place in the world and who, by the end, is becoming ready to step into womanhood.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Powers. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007. ISBN 0-15-205770-6, hc, 512 pp., $17.00. Reviewed by David Bratman. Reprinted from Mythprint, January-February 2008.

This is not a novel about Tim Powers, though it'd be interesting if it were. It's the third and longest novel so far in a sequence that Le Guin has been writing for ages 14 and up set in a large, wide-ranging imaginary country where supernatural talents exist, but are only held by some people, are often flickery and unreliable in practice, and are mistrusted by the bulk of the populace.

Each novel is the narrative of late childhood and adolescence of a person facing these talents. Like the girl who was the subject of the previous book, Voices, Gavir, the boy who narrates Powers, is the house slave of a wealthy and cultured city family. He has two talents that he calls his powers: one, the ability to see in memory events that have not yet happened, is definitely supernatural; the other, the ability to remember anything he has read and recite the story well, is arguably not. Both powers give him guidance and sometimes save his life, but are also disturbing to him.

The first section of the book, with Gavir in the city among his masters and his fellow slaves, is somewhat clotted with briefly-appearing characters who are a bit hard to remember and distinguish. But a sudden shocking event causes Gavir to flee his masters and go into hiding in the countryside, and here the narrative suddenly leaps to compelling life and stays riveting to the end of the long tale. Gavir hides out among two different groups of forest fugitives, then finds his way back to his birth-people from whom he was stolen when still a baby. In all these places his powers make him stand out, but in none does he feel fully at home most heartbreakingly among the tribe of his birth, in whose complex customs he is untutored.

Eventually, burdened but enriched by the company of a small girl whom he has taken under his care, he finds home in a place and society totally unfamiliar to him, but where his powers are welcomed.

Early in his education, Gavir is given a book of poems by Orrec, the now-famous writer and tale-teller whose childhood had been the subject of the first book in this sequence, Gifts, and who had been a significant character in Voices as well. Orrec's poems, derided as dangerously modern by some of Gavir's teachers, become for Gavir a kind of lodestone, something to cherish and hold on to during his long journey. And thus (and with a brief appearance also by Memer from Voices) the three books are tied together. But they also share a theme, and the 78-year-old author's remarkable ability to remember and depict the crises and concerns of adolescence, particularly adolescence marked by external turmoil.

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Last Updated: April 26, 2009
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