Feb 11, 2008

Powers by Ursula Le Guin

In Powers, Ursula Le Guin takes us to yet another part of the Western Shore, and introduces us to a new first person narrator. Gavir is a slave in the city of Etra. He and his sister Sallo are marsh people, but they were captured by slave raiders when they were very young children. They belong to the House of Arca, and their masters are not unkind. Gavir is a scholar-slave, a slave who is destined to teach the family’s children when he grows up. He is given an education, and he is treated with some respect and kindness. But, as he slowly begins to realize, this is a kindness that shouldn’t exist. Nobody should have the life and fate of another at the mercy of their kindness.

In the first part of the novel, Gavir describes his upbringing in the House of Arca – the games he played with the master’s children; the idyllic summers spend at a farm outside the city, a place in which the line between master and slave was often blurred; his own education and his ever-growing love for poetry and stories. At first, Gavir accepted the way things were, simply because that was all he’d ever known. He believed that the distinction between master and slave was part of a sacred order than couldn’t be challenged. And as we all know, this is unfortunately true of many people in many different kinds of unfair circumstances.

As time passes, Gavir goes through a series of situations that shatter his view of the world and break the trust he had in his maters. His eyes begin to open:
I had blinded my eyes with belief. I had believed that the rule of the master and the obedience of the slave was a mutual and sacred trust. I had believed that justice could exist in a society founded on injustice.
During a siege to the city of Etra, he is introduced by other educated slaves to the work of the poet Orrec Caspro, and, through it, to the concept of liberty. He says the following of the poetry book he is given:
It was the first book I'd ever owned. It was the first thing I'd ever owned. I called what I wore my clothes, the desk I used in the schoolroom I called my desk, but in fact they were not mine, they were a property of the house of Arca, as I was. But this book, this was mine.
As the story moves on, Gavir learns. He learns what freedom truly is—it is more than just not being a slave. He learns what and where his home is, he learns who he truly is, he learns about the ties that bind us to one another, and he learns about their meaning. And above all, he learns about the power of knowledge, of stories, of poetry. He learns that those things bring light into the darkest recesses of our lives. When he tells stories to a community of escaped slaves living in the forest, he broadens their horizons, he changes their lives. With stories, we imagine, and when we imagine, we see possibilities. And it is only when we see several possibilities that we can change our lives.

Powers is perhaps less immediate than the other books in the series—its pace is slower, and the story is a more contemplative one. But that doesn’t make it any less rewarding, nor any less beautiful. The characters are extraordinary and fully believable; the writing is beautiful; the themes the book deals with are pertinent; the story is engaging. What more can one ask for in a book?

As some of you might remember, I said that Voices and Gifts don’t have to be read in order. I maintain that, but I do think it’s advisable to read both of them before Powers. The story is completely stand-alone, and familiar characters from previous books only make their appearance towards the end, but being familiar with the dynamics of the world the series is set in will make the story more rewarding, more touching, and it’ll make the ending have a much greater impact.

Now that I’ve read this book, I have a whole new perspective on the Western Shore. The world Ursula Le Guin created for these books is, in some ways, reminiscent of the Ancient World. Some parts are a little like Greece and Rome (Gavir has the status, for example, that learned Greek slaves had in Rome), others are more like the East. But what makes this fantasy setting all the more effective in dealing with issues of power, gender, equality or freedom is the fact that, unlike history, it cannot be thought of as being over and done with. With historical novels, people can say, “but that was then”. But fantasy is neither then nor now, neither here nor there, and thus it is always and everywhere. The things that happen in these books happened in antiquity, and they happen still even if under slightly different guises. It’s good to have stories that force us to face them as they are and to think about them.

The Annals of the Western Shore has now a firm place beside Discworld, Earthsea, His Dark Materials or The Sandman as one my very favourite fantasy series. I can only hope that someday Ursula Le Guin writes more stories set in this wonderfully rich world. There’s definitely room for more, and I’d be delighted if she wrote them.


  1. Wow...what a compliment to put it in the company of those other series'! I really can't wait to get into this series. I have Gifts on a couple of challenge lists so it will most definitely be read this year. They sound so beautiful!

  2. I love this: "But fantasy is neither then nor now, neither here nor there, and thus it is always and everywhere." I sometimes feel this way about dystopian books--one day Nymeth--one day I'll get out of my comfort zone and give fantasy a try. Just like I keep telling Joy that I'll give audiobooks a try. :)

  3. Since you started reviewing this series it has made me want to give them a go, hopefully next year. I like the idea of the Western Shore being like Ancient Greece or Rome. Sounds like just my kind of series.

  4. I think you just gave me the greatest idea for a birthday gift for Annie. These really sound like a series she would adore. And then they'll be just sitting on her bookshelves ripe for borrowing ;)

  5. Chris: They really are beautiful. I can't wait to see what you think of Gifts.

    Trish: Do give fantasy a try! The great thing about it is that it's so diverse that there has to be a fantasy book out there for everyone.

    Rhinoa: I do think it's yout kind of series. I hope you manage to fit them in!

    Debi: I like your reasoning :P I have to let you know, though, these are recommended for grades 7 and up. I know that Annie is very wise for her age, and she can read books for an older audience, but I wanted to tell you that these books hint at some pretty emotionally heavy things. In the second book, for example, Memer is a child of rape. There is absolutely nothing graphic in the books - Ursula deals with these things very gracefully, showing their consequences rather than describing them directly. But that, as well as the many injustices that some characters in the book have to face, can be quite upsetting. I know how mature Annie is, and I think she'd most likely be fine, but I thought I'd warn you anyway.

  6. I need to add this whole series to my pile. I have read a few short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin but not for a long time. I remember liking her works. Thanks for the reviews! Maybe I can squeeze them in for a challenge.

  7. i'm glad to hear you praise it so highly! it certainly seems to be a carefully thought-out and thoroughly developed world.

  8. Kim L: I hope you manage to squeeze these in! They really are worth reading.

    JP: Yup, it really is. It's so nice to find a series with such depth.

  9. Thanks for the heads up, Nymeth! I think you're probably right, and she'd be okay with them. But then again, maybe she'd get a little more from them in another year or two.

  10. Debi, you're welcome. That's what I thought too. She'd be okay now, but they would probably be a more rewarding read in a couple of years.


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