Nov 23, 2007

Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

I read quite a bit, and most of the time I like what I read, but it is not often that I find a book I love as much as this. Books like this are the reason why I constantly seek out stories. They are an example of literature at its very best.

Gifts is the first book in a new series by master storyteller Ursula Le Guin, a series called Annals of the Western Shore. Like the well-known Earthsea, this is a fantasy series, but the world it’s set in is a new one. Gifts tells the first person story of Orrec, and it opens with the young man telling a traveler how his own father sealed his eyes. Orrec lives in the Uplands, a place inhabited by small clans that each have a special power , a gift. Some have the gift to call animals, others can cast wasting spells. Some can make a person blind or deaf, and others still can completely twist another’s body. Orrec’s gift is one of the most terrible: it is the gift of undoing.

To keep these gifts strong, the clans often marry within themselves, and they almost never mix with people from the Lowlands. Orrec’s mother, however, is a lowlander, and as Orrec approaches the age in which the gifts show themselves, he becomes increasingly anxious, for he is afraid that he won’t have it at all. But when the gift does come, it is wild: it cannot be controlled by the will, so to keep those around him safe from the terrible power of undoing, Orrec has to wear a blindfold.

This book, as most of Ursula Le Guin’s work, perfectly illustrates what those who dismiss fantasy as “mindless escapism” often fail to grasp. Fantasy settings create a certain type of mood that not everyone is drawn to, but the emotions and the experiences the characters go through could be – and indeed are – experienced by anyone at anytime. This story is set in a fantasy world (and a wonderfully created one, I might add), but it is essentially the story of a boy growing up, dealing with loss and disenchantment, and trying to balance the discovery of what and who he is and the expectations of those who surround him. It is a very human story, and how could it be otherwise?

Once again, I was enchanted by Ursula Le Guin’s extraordinary writing. There are very few writers that I find this good. She writes with elegance, subtlety and grace. She portrays the little spaces between people brilliantly – what hides in a glance, in a silence, in a sudden body shift. She has an eye for detail, and she always knows exactly what to add to make a scene or a piece of dialogue memorable.

Allow me to share a passage with you:
To see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well. It’s unwise, though, to think you know how it’s going to go, or how it’s going to end. That’s to be known only when it’s over.

And when it’s over, even when it’s somebody else’s life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I’ve heard told time and again, while I’m hearing it I hope and feel as if I didn’t know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me. That’s as good a way as I know to outwit death. Stories are what death thinks he puts an end to. He can’t understand what they end in him, but they don’t end with him.
As you can tell from this passage, the importance of stories is quite an important theme in this book. Orrec’s mother tells him fairy tales from the Lowlands, and some of these are actually included in the book – and they are lovely. According to the reviews I read of the following books in the series,Voices and Powers, storytelling becomes an even more important theme as the series progresses.

I realize that not everyone will respond to this book as strongly as I did, but I cannot help but recommend it to each and every one of you. Gifts is a story full of beauty and sorrow and wisdom – a story that will surely touch the hearts of most.

Other Blog Reviews:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Becky's Book Reviews


  1. I read The Lathe of Heaven by LeGuin a few years back and couldn't quite get into it, but I've been wanting another book by her because so many people enjoy her work. I had thought of the Earthsea series, but this sounds like it would be much more up my alley. I love these kind of stories. Your review reminds me a lot of Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series which is amazing. That series starts with Seventh Son and you'd probably enjoy it if you liked this one. I'll put this book on the list!

  2. Ursula Le Guin won me over years ago when I first read A Wizard of Earthsea.I'm sure I'll enjoy this too. Sounds great!

  3. I think she's one of my Celebrate the Author challenge picks, so I'll keep this in mind.

  4. Chris: Even though I adore her, I had a similar experience with "The Left Hand of Darkness". I just could not get into it. I left it unfinished, and I rarely ever not finish books. I decided to give it another try, though, and put it on my list for the Book Awards Reading Challenge. But because of this bad experience, I've read very few of her SF books: only "City of Illusions" and "Planet of Exile". I absolutely LOVE her fantasy, though. Earthsea is great, but I am among the few who prefer the later Earthsea books - "Tehanu", "The Other Wind" and "Tales from Earthsea". This new series is more similar to those. They are more... philosophical, I guess. Not as epic and adventurous, but more personal. I reall y do think you will enjoy them. The Alvin Maker series sounds great! To my wishlist it goes.

    Valentina: I really enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, but it was with The Tombs of Atuan that I completely fell in love with her work. I do think you will enjoy this series!

    Dewey: Do! I'd love to read your thoughts on it.

  5. Sounds very interesting. I haven't read anything by her, but I will be reading the Left Hand of Darkness sometime for the Book Awards Challenge. It will be different for me since I don't read a lot of fantasy or sci-fi, but I'm looking forward to it. Now I know what to pick up if I enjoy it!

  6. I'll keep an eye out for this. I read the first four books in the Earthsea series and although I enjoyed them, I did find them very bleak. Is this one similar in style?

  7. Sounds like a wonderful start to a new series!! I'm probably one of the few people that read fantasy that hasn't read a book by Le Guin. It's on my list for next year!!

  8. Can I recommend two of Le Guin's short story collections? Birthday of the World and Changing Planes. Both excellent. I had difficulty with Left Hand of Darkness too but struggled on to the end. It lost me somewhere though... Earthsea I thought was fantastic and like you my favourite was The Tombs of Atuan. Fantastic author... I have a book of her essays on my tbr pile and really must get around Gifts as I keep seeing it in the library.

  9. Trish: It will be fun to compare notes on The Left Hand of Darkness

    Rhinoa: This one reminded me more of the 5th and 6th Earthsea books, which were written much later. The style is not very different, though. I personally love it, but I can see how it doesn't work for everyone.

    Stephanie: You really must read her! I can't wait to see what you think.

    Cath: Thank you so much for the recommendation! I will definitely look for those. I've come across some of her short stories in anthologies, and I enjoyed them a lot. Do read Gifts - I don't think you will be disappointed.

  10. I am so excited to hear such a positive review. A very good friend of mine picked up a hardback copy of this for me from a free giveaway at a comic show this fall and I was so excited to get it, it is a beautiful looking book. Can't wait to read it now!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.