I think it is about time that I recommended something by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of the most respected figures in modern Fantasy and Science Fiction with a `World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement’ to prove it. Le Guin is a prolific author so it hasn’t been easy to choose just one of her books. I thought of picking `The Tombs of Atuan’, which I find the most interesting of her Earthsea novels, but this is very well known. So instead I’ve decided on `Gifts’ – the first in a loosely-linked trilogy known as the `Annals of the Western Shore’. The original hardback edition, published by Harcourt in 2004, is a handsome book in every way. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are also easy to find. In theory, `Gifts’ is a novel for teenagers but it refuses to follow most of the conventions of Young Adult fiction.
In the bleak northern Uplands live families who each have a special `gift’ which they can use to protect or enrich their domains. Some of these gifts, such as the power of female members of the Barre family to summon and control animals, seem benevolent enough. Others, such as the ability of the Geremant family to twist limbs or the Rodds to maim or kill with a spirit-knife, are dangerous and cruel. No wonder that the Lowlanders accuse Uplanders of being witches, even if they don’t quite believe all the stories about them.
Young Orrec is the only son of Canoc, the Brantor (leader) of Caspromant, whose gift is `undoing’. This terrible gift can destroy people, animals and things but Cannoc uses it to defend his domain from aggressive neighbours such as Ogge of Drummant, who has the sinister gift of `slow wasting’. Canoc’s wife, Melle, is a Lowlander with a talent for story-telling. Theirs is a very happy marriage but Canoc is anxious to know whether his son has inherited the Caspromant gift. Orrec enjoys watching his `cradle-friend’ Gry Barre use her gift to call animals but he has no desire to try destroying things with a look. Gry and Orrec seem made for each other but their families have other plans for them.
Canoc keeps testing his son. When Orrec is a teenager his gift does show itself but it seems to be `Wild’ – a power that cannot be controlled. After he loses his temper, Orrec has to wear a blindfold to stop him accidentally killing someone with a glance. He daren’t even look at his beloved mother or the dog who helps him to get around. As the threat from Ogge of Drummant increases, so does the pressure on Orrec to control his power. After a time of tragedy, it is Gry who helps Orrec to understand the extraordinary truth about his gift.
Novels for modern teenagers are expected to be fast-paced and action-packed. `Gifts’ is neither of these things and Le Guin doesn’t try to grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic opening. Instead, this thoughtful story begins with a long conversation, in which Orrec tries to explain the Upland way of life to a sceptical Lowlander. You may feel that I’ve given rather a lot away in my synopsis but most of this plot information is revealed in the very first chapter. `Gifts’ doesn’t have a complicated plot and Le Guin disdains to build up suspense in an obvious way. What she does do is establish an air of menace and cleverly needle the reader into asking lots of questions about Orrec and Gry’s strange situation.
If Le Guin’s work is more admired than loved it may be because she always seems in total control of her material, using her immaculate prose to create new worlds with the minimum of fuss. This story isn’t cluttered by masses of background detail but the Uplands, with their bleak mountains, feuding clans and men in kilts, have a vaguely Scottish feel. The fact that Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists may account for her special talent for inventing convincing cultures and societies. She has obviously put much thought into how the Brantors’ powers, and the fear they evoke, would influence the hierarchy within domains and the interaction between domains. She describes a society living with a balance of terror and the effect is chilling. It is quiet Gry who works out how the original powers may have been distorted. This challenges every reader to think about whether they have misused any of the gifts they were born with. An uncomfortable question.
The narrative voice in `Gifts’ is that of Orrec, so the reader is forced to share his blindness for much of the novel. Le Guin often writes about very unconventional family groups but the Caspromant family has deceptive air of normality. Orrec has a tempestuous but always plausible relationship with his father, full of anger, resentment and guilt. For much of the book it is hard to tell whether Orrec has a real grievance, or if he’s just being a typical teenager refusing to make an effort because he’s afraid of failing to meet his parents’ expectations. Fantasy fiction isn’t generally big on mother-son relationships but there is an outstanding one in `Gifts’. Melle is touchingly portrayed as a woman who deeply loves both her husband and her son but feels unable to intervene in their dispute about a power she cannot comprehend. What she can do is to teach Orrec to read and write and leave a him a legacy of stories and poems.
Melle’s stories aren’t factual but they contain the kind of truths that people can live by. The power of stories and poems to enrich individuals and sustain or even change whole civilizations is explored throughout `The Annals of the Western Shore’. In Volume Two – `Voices’ (which has a different narrator and setting) you can follow Orrec and Grys into a conquered city where the Taliban-like new rulers drown people for possessing books. Le Guin’s fantasies always have strong connections to the real world. If you are looking for a story with lasting resonance, try `Gifts’. Until next time….