Source of book: Audiobook from the library
The younger three kids and I just got back from an epic camping trip of nearly two weeks and 3000 miles of towing. (And also between 50 and 60 miles of hiking, depending on the kid.) Because of that long period spent in the car, we listened to five audiobooks. I’ll try to get those reviewed over the next week or so. This is the second one.
I was kind of randomly looking for interesting audiobooks on our library website, and decided to see if there were any Le Guin books. Unfortunately, most of her books from the 1970s and 80s were not in that format, but at least this one and the second book in the series are. I decided to give it a chance, and it was indeed a good book.
I have previously read and posted about two novels from Le Guin’s Hainish series, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. In addition, my second kid wrote her big 11th grade English paper on Le Guin, and has read a whole lot of her writing (most of which we were given by a colleague of mine who was downsizing his library.) It seemed to me that my kids are all old enough to enjoy her writing, so I decided to give this one a shot.
Gifts is the first in the Annals of the Western Shore series of young adult novels. Written in her 70s, the first came out in 2004, and the last in 2007.
For the most part, Gifts is a coming-of-age story, with themes revolving around power and its use and abuse. It also, like so many of Le Guin’s books, examines the question of what a person is to do when they do not fit into the systems and categories of their society.
It is hard to describe the exact genre of this book. I don’t think it fits neatly into either Science Fiction or Fantasy, although it is usually grouped in the latter category. In some ways, it could be said to be “historical magical realism” perhaps. The society in which the book is set resembles ancient times here on earth. The centers of civilization are city-states, connected and disconnected by trade and warfare, as the case may be. To the north are the “Uplands,” a sparsely inhabited area characterized by tribalism, proto-feudalism, and constant violence. The various clans (and their respective territories) are ruled by “brantors,” the aristocracy of that area. The Brantors are different from the commoners in that they have “gifts” - hence the title. These gifts vary from those allowing a person to see into the minds of others, to healing, to communicating with animals, to, in the case of the protagonist’s family, the ability to “unmake” things. As Orrec, the young man who tells the story, and his childhood friend, Gry, eventually come to realize, the gifts in practice seem now to be used for violence - to defend one’s homeland, but also in aggression and expansion of power.
“In Gifts, the powers of magic are kind of warped. They are mostly used aggressively and destructively and defensively, actually. You know, it’s like having that secret weapon that they use against each other. It’s all gone kind of sour.”
Gry, who is in essence a wise woman in this story, although the unusual young one, and one who sees her own character development as important in the story too, theorizes that originally, all the gifts were “positive” - that is, that for healing and nurture and creating, rather than the “negative” forms many have taken, to be used for destruction, power, and control.
Orrec, born into a family that should have the gift of “undoing” - essentially killing or destruction (in the case of non-living things), comes of age and finds that he does not have the gift. This is probably due to the fact that his father married a “lowland” woman - one without a magical “gift” - although it is clear that she has other gifts. In the course of the story, Orrec is led to believe that he has a “wild” gift, that is, one he cannot (yet) control, In order to prevent destruction, he agrees to be blindfolded for a time (which becomes years) so he cannot accidentally kill at a glance. As he [spoiler] comes to realize later, this has all been false. He has no magic, and his father faked the destruction in order to both encourage his son, and to create fear among his malevolent neighbors.
Gry too has a problem. Her family gift is “calling” animals. This goes beyond a mere ability to be a fantastic breeder and carer of livestock, and she is expected to call wild animals at the hunt. Kind of supernatural bait, so to speak. But Gry does not want to do this. She feels it is an abuse of the gift, an unethical way of interacting with the natural world. So, the two of them, by the end of the book, have to make the choice to find their way in life with the gifts they do have. For Orrec, this is the ability he inherited from his mother - that of a storyteller and a poet.
Le Guin is a great world builder and storyteller, and this book feels well plotted and paced. The characters are memorable and complex, and feel natural in the specific society they are found in. The role of women is examined, of course, this being a patriarchal society, but one in which the females have magical gifts too, and thus cannot be relegated to domestic duties.
Le Guin’s thoughts about power and how it can be abused is excellent. If one has power, what are the responsibilities? Is it a betrayal of that gift to refuse to use it? What if, like that of undoing, it can only be used for destruction? This isn’t just about magic and fantasy. If a man is large and strong, is he obligated to use that size and strength to kill in battle? If a woman is fertile, is she obligated to have as many babies as she can before her body disintegrates? Is violence the only option? Is expanding one’s territory (or wealth) the only legitimate goal? Is there a third way?
There is also the question of value. What is the ultimate good? Is it that constant accumulation and preservation of power, territory, wealth? Or does goodness reside in something less tangible, such as the stories that Orrec’s mother tells?
I think one of the best parts, though, is the relationship between Orrec and Gry. I am a bit of a sucker for romances in which the two parties are friends first. For Orrec and Gry to grow up as best of friends, and organically grow into lovers, works well in this world where marriage is usually a matter of strategic alliance - to preserve the gifts to the next generation. Le Guin also makes it clear just how equal this relationship is. Indeed, the other good marriages in this book are all fairly egalitarian. Gry’s parents, if anything, are the reverse of patriarchy - her mother clearly is the strongest person in the family, and Gry will also take that role someday. Orrec’s parents, with their mixed marriage, seem to be one of the few true love matches, despite the auspicious beginning of their relationship. (He made a raid on a town to the south, and asked for a woman to go back with him. She agreed, to escape her family, who wanted her to be a temple virgin.) But for Gry and Orrec, it is clear that they complement each other, with his poetic passion balanced by her wisdom and thoughtfulness. As someone in a similar marriage, perhaps this resonated a lot.
In retrospect, it is amazing just how good Le Guin was for so long. Her career stretched more than 50 years, and these later books do not feel in the least bit mailed in. Heck, she didn’t take up poetry until her senior years. I love authors who never lose that flame, who, if anything, grow as writers right up to the end.
I am glad we have another of these books in audiobook format, although I wish the third was available as well.
The audiobook was narrated by Jim Colby, who seems to be everywhere (Audible alone has 15 pages of his books) and for good reason. He is a reliably fine narrator with a pleasant voice. I also appreciate that the audiobook version had good compression, and short tracks.