Saturday, July 26, 2014
Gifts, Voices, Powers
Title: Annals of the Western Shore
By: Ursula K. Le Guin
While there are three books in the Annals of the Western Shore, and certain characters make more than one appearance, this is not a conventional trilogy. Rather, each book focuses on a different society within the larger geographic region of the “Western Shore.” Ursula K. Le Guin's father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and it's obvious that his area of study had a strong influence on her writing. Indeed, my favorite parts of her fiction are not her individual characters, but the cultures she depicts.
Gifts imagines an “Uplands” (read: Highlands) society of feuding, cattle-raiding clans. Each clan possesses a hereditary magical power—such as the power to cripple a man or blind him—that is enacted through the gaze. Certain lineages may die out while others gain predominance, but on the whole, these powers or “gifts” help maintain an uneasy status quo. Enter a young heir who for some reason is blindfolded, along with his friend who refuses to use her “gift” in furtherance of her family's livelihood, and the story unfolds.
Voices is set in a port city with a world-famous library and a thousand roadside shrines to a multitude of divinities (but no temples). This city, which also has no army, is conquered by desert-based monotheists who believe that both the written word and all other gods are demonic. While this may sound like the premise of a hundred other fantasy novels, Le Guin subverts the reader's expectations repeatedly.
Powers begins in a city-state highly reminiscent of ancient Rome, especially in its depiction of the arrangement in which educated slaves serve as tutors for their master's children. Gavir is a young slave boy being trained to become one of these tutors. However, events bring him into contact with a number of other cultures, including the traditional tribal Marsh society of his birth and a would-be-utopia of runaway slaves who live a Robin Hood lifestyle in the forest. Some of the most fascinating tensions in Powers arise from Gavir's attempts to find uses for his book learning in these largely illiterate but highly complex cultures.
Indeed, all three books meditate upon the importance of literacy and storytelling: Le Guin certainly could be accused of preaching to the choir here, but let's say instead that she knows her audience. “Stories are what death thinks he puts an end to. He can't understand that they end in him, but they don't end with him.”