Jan 12, 2008

Voices by Ursula Le Guin

The second book in the Annals of the Western Shore is the story of seventeen-year-old Memer. Memer lives in Ansul, a great and beautiful city, and once an important centre of knowledge and the home to one of the world’s largest libraries. Ansul is, however, under the dominion of the Alds. The Alds do their best to repress Ansul’s traditions and beliefs. And what is worse, they believe books to be blasphemous, so they destroy them – along with those who read and write them – by drowning them. For the Alds, death by fire is scared, so they refuse to give books the honour of being burned.

Although raised in an Ansul household, Memer is herself half Ald. Her father was an anonymous soldier who raped her mother during the conquest of the city, seventeen year before. But the blood in her veins doesn’t stop Memer from hating these people, the people who caused her and those she loves so much pain. At the start of this tale, the arrival of a famous storyteller, Orrec, and of his wife Gry to Ansul signals the beginning of a much longed for change.

Although set in the same world as the wonderful Gifts, Voices is not quite a sequel. Orrec and Gry play an important role in the story, but this is Memer’s tale, not theirs. Although somewhat thematically related, the stories are completed independent, and don’t really have to be read in order. Having read Gifts before was helpful because it allowed me to feel immediately at home in this world, and to feel a fondness for the characters that would otherwise have taken a few more pages to develop. But anyway.

Voices is at once a coming-of-age story and the story of a bloodless revolution. It is not quite a political story, but it’s also not not political either. It’s political in the sense that the personal can be political – it shows how big decisions affect individual lives, and how small individual gestures are often the start of big social changes. The story uses the private, the particular, to exemplify the social and the universal – a technique I personal find much more powerful and effective than general abstractions.

This is a story about the yearning for freedom, about the power of knowledge and the extents to which we go to save it. Our collective accumulated knowledge is, after all, often the very basis of our cultural and personal identity. It is also a story about the role of myths and stories as agents of change. As this book shows, the stories we hear and do not hear often shape who we are. The stories we are allowed to tell affect the way we see the world.

This is a story about oppression and occupation, but Ursula Le Guin is much too intelligent to make it a simplistic story about the evil oppressor versus the oppressed victim. Nothing about this book is simple. As I said, it tells the story of a bloodless revolution – during the course of the book, change finally comes to Ansul, and it’s not achieved through force of arms. That doesn’t mean, however, that things come easily. This book is full of tension, of difficulties, of fears, of demands. The final solution that is found is, as often in life, a compromise. Nothing is simple, nothing is idealized.

The situation in which Ansul is at the start of this book in one that has happened time and again in human history, and happens still in our days. People of different cultures fight and fear and deeply mistrust one another. The solution achieved here is one that unfortunately is not often seen in real life. This is a tale of what never was, but could have been, can still be, if only people become more willing to get to know others and to accept differences, even the ones we find unthinkable.

As the story develops, the way the Alds are portrayed begins to change. Little by little, they begin to be humanized, and Memer realized that in her blind hatred she had been doing the very same thing that was done to her people. She was demonizing a whole people just because of their differences. Memer slowly realizes that there is more to Ald culture than mindless violence.

I cannot remember where, but I once read a review that said that Ursula Le Guin writing for children is more complex and relevant than many authors writing for adults. I wholeheartedly agree with this. This is a book for younger readers that is beautiful, intricate and wise. It reminded me a little of Terry Pratchett’s Thud! in the way it uses a fantasy setting to deal with issues like racial and ethnic tensions, cultural domination and social change, and does it in a way that is both touching and insightful. Ursula Le Guin is a wise woman, and this is a book I won’t easily forget. I will leave you with her words:

I always wondered why the makers leave house-keeping and cooking out of their tales. Isn's it what all the great wars and battles are fought for - so that at day's end a family may eat together in a peaceful house? The tale tells how the Lords of Manva hunted and gathered roots and cooker their suppers while they were camped in exile in the foothills of Sul, but it doesn't say what their wives and children were living on in their city left ruined and desolate by the enemy. They were finding food too, somehow, cleaning house and honoring the gods, the way we did in the siege and under the tyranny of the Alds. When the heroes came back from the mountains, they were welcomed with a feast. I'd like to know what the food was and how the women managed it.

'Heathen,' they called us. A word we learned from them. If it meant anything, it meant people who don't know what's sacred. Are there any such people? 'Heathen' is merely a word for somebody who knows a different sacredness than you.
Other Opinions:
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
The Written World


  1. What an excellent review, Nymeth! I have not read this series, but I have never been disappointed by anything I've read by Le Guin. On the list it goes! Thanks!

  2. Is it possible to be in love with a book without ever having read it? I feel like this will be one of my "favorite books" whenever I get to it. It sounds amazing. I have Gifts sitting very, very patiently on my shelf...sadly knowing that it will be some time before I get to it. These really sound like they're instant classics. Isn't there another book in the series out after this one?

  3. 'Heathen,' they called us. A word we learned from them. If it meant anything, it meant people who don't know what's sacred. Are there any such people? 'Heathen' is merely a word for somebody who knows a different sacredness than you.

    I love this passage - thank you for posting this, Nymeth.

    My email address is "pagan" -- and I chose it because I recognise a spirituality beyond the institution.

    As this book shows, the stories we hear and do not hear often shape who we are. The stories we are allowed to tell affect the way we see the world.

    I want to read this book just for what you wrote here about it. Stories are the narrative that shape the world. I believe in this.

    Need to check out the library next week for Ursula Leguin.

    Thank you for this review.

  4. Darla: I think you'd enjoy this series. Ursula Le Guin is amazing, isn't she?

    Chris: Yup, I think it is possible..I've felt the same reading certain reviews of yours, like The Time Traveler's Wife. There is another one in the series, yes. It's called Powers. Again, it introduces a new character as the first person narrator, but it features characters from the previous books too. A few days ago I was looking at the reviews on amazon and several people said it was the best in the series. wow. It took all my self-restraint not to run to the library to get it right away.

    Dark Orpheus: You're very welcome. I believe in that, too. I hope you enjoy the book (and I think you will).

  5. I keep seeing this in bookshops but haven't gotten around to it yet. I want to read the fifth Earthsea book but am not sure what it is called and then hopefully try some more of her writing. This sounds interesting and something I would enjoy.

  6. I read _Left Hand of Darkness_ last summer. If you're still in the first half, take heart -- it improves enormously after the halfway point. It ended up being a great favorite, although I had a hard time wading through all the political stuff in the beginning.

    I've been tempted to try the new series -- maybe with your encouragement, I will give it a shot! :)

  7. Oh my, this sounds like such a powerful, moving book. I seriously want to go order it right this minute. Would it really be best to read Gifts first? (I've never read anything by her before.)

    Thank you again, Nymeth, for another beautiful review!

  8. Rhinoa: The fifth Earthsea book is called The Other Wind, and it's one of my favourite books ever. It's the best in the series, in my opinion. There's also a book of short stories that was published before that one, called Tales From Earthsea. Most of the stories are unrelated to the main plot of the series, but the last one, "Dragonfly", provides the link between the 4th and the 5th book...so I'd recommend reading it first.

    Lydia: I finished The Left Hand of Darkness today...and I did struggle with it a bit. But I definitely agree that it improves. The last third of the book or so was much better. I'm not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, though... I think I need to let it sink it in before I try to gather my thoughts. But yeah, if it ended up being a favourite of yours then I definitely recommend this series!

    Debi: You don't have to have read Gifts first to enjoy this one. I guess that in a way it helps, because then you'll know some characters from the start and you'll be familiar with the world, but this story does a great job at reintroducing those things and it's perfectly complete in itself. Reading this one first and then going back to Gifts to discover Orrec and Gry's background story would work just fine too.

  9. Another strike for LeGuin, I see. (Bowling strike, not baseball strike.) I love her, and I love when people love her.

    I've read Gifts but not this yet, and now I'm really excited to. I've got The Other Wind next in line, and I'm glad you gave that a positive blurb as well.

    My favorite of hers has gotta be The Dispossessed, though. Highly recommended.

  10. another author i've been meaning to read for ages...!

    the plot sounds really cool, but what has me sold is how you say that she makes the plot complicated and not simple (now there's some tautology if ever is saw it!).

  11. I'm with JP. Le Guin is an author that I've been meaning to read for a long time. This is such a great review!! I really need to read a couple of her books!!

  12. Scott: I've always been sort of intimidated by her science fiction even though I love her fantasy. Now that I made it through The Left Hand of Darkness, I think I am feeling brave enough to try The Dispossessed. Thanks for the recommendation. And pick up The Other Wind as soon as you can! It's a stunning book.

    JP: Nothing is ever simple in Le Guin's work. Not that she makes things unnecessarily complicated - she just mirrors life's complexities. Do give her a try!

    Stephanie: Do read her! She's one of my very favourites. Either this, Gifts or the Earthsea books would be perfect to start with.

  13. You have me very excited for this book! I'm a big LeGuin fan and recently read the whole Earthsea series (re-reading the original trilogy I read as a kid). I have a few others by her on my shelf (The Lathe of Heaven) comes to mind, but I don't have this one yet. Thanks!


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