There are lots of reasons to like a good Le Guin novel — her spare prose, her sharpness of description, her ease of storytelling, but in simple terms, when Le Guin writes well (nearly always), it boils down to the fact that reading becomes bare unadorned pleasure. Pleasure at its purest and simplest. And that is the gift of this book.
The backstory is pretty simple — families living in the Uplands have hereditary magical abilities or “gifts” (one type to a family) that can and usually are employed to harm: gifts of “unmaking” (killing/destroying), of “calling” (calling animals — used to call them to be killed), of “twisting” (maiming things and people), of “wasting” (cursing with a slowly fatal illness). The clans feud back and forth over land, cattle, etc. yet must also stay on terms to keep interbreeding as the gifts are strongest when bred true through the family. The description of the clans reminded me of old Celtic tales of cattle-thieving etc. Fans of Irish/Scottish old tales of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series might see some similarities).
Into this world come two youths raised as friends since childhood. Orrec’s family has the gift of unmaking (using the eyes and hands) and there is a lot of pressure on him early when his gift takes its time to manifest itself, possibly because his mother is an ungifted “lowlander” who left the lowlands to wed his father after a raid. When his gift does appear, it seems to be “wild”, uncontrollable and a danger to those around him. At his own urging, Orrec is blindfolded to protect those he loves. Along with its personal impact, this also has larger ripples: on his budding romance with his childhood friend Gry, on his relationship with his mother and father, on his family’s relationship with a bordering family whose aggressively greedy leader, Ogge Drum, threatens both Gry and Orrec’s homes.
Gry, meanwhile, who has the talent to call animals, has decided she has no desire to do so if it simply leads to their death. She refuses to join the hunts and calls into question the whole underlying theory and application of the gifts.
Gifts is a slim story, yet works on many levels. The simple plot is effectively suspenseful and well-paced: will Orrec remain blindfolded, will he and Gry marry, will Gry be forced to use her talent, will they withstand Ogge Drum, etc. The deeper stories are even more effective. The relationships between two adolescents and their parents as they try to find their own way, their own identities. The changing relationship between the two of them as they shift from friends to perhaps more, from powerless to powerful, from passive to active, from adolescent to adult. The larger issues of power and restraint. None of these are handled in ham-handed fashion; all of them are subtly and nicely interwoven to add pleasure and complexity.
The style is typical Le Guin. Spare, poetic, vivid. There isn’t a word out of place and she makes five words do what most need fifteen for. Some current authors of those bloated epic fantasy tomes could take some lessons here that sometimes less really is more.
Characters are three-dimensional, complex, sharply depicted. And there is an ease to the whole tale that is signature Le Guin, a born storyteller. Her narrator, Orrec, is himself a lover of tales (one of the more tragic effects of his blinding is his loss of the books his mother made him) as well as, he comes to learn, a teller of them. And finally, the culture itself is clearly laid out (despite not spending three hundred pages on “world-building”) in logical, understandable fashion with a true sense of authenticity.
Normally at this point I’d spend at least a few lines on the few minor flaws that were overcome by a book’s larger strengths (if I liked the book). But to be honest, I really would have to strain to come up with even some minor flaws. I’m not sure I’d come up with any even then. Highly, highly recommended. Gifts is the sort of book one wishes there were more of and that more writers, especially in this genre of fantasy (as overarching a genre as that is) would emulate.
Bill has written a nice review of Gifts, so I’ll just say a couple of things.
Everything Bill says is true, but I didn’t like Gifts quite as much as he did because most of the story is told by Orrec as it happened in the past, or as he relates stories that his mother told him. This technique made everything seem less urgent, taking the edge off the excitement and curbing the action. The story is slow and unhappy, though there’s a lovely philosophy, if that’s what you’re in the mood for.
I listened to Gifts on audio. I really enjoyed the audio version.
Annals of the Western Shore — (2004-2007) Young adult. Powers won the Nebula Award for 2008. Publisher: Scattered among poor, desolate farms, the clans of the Uplands possess gifts. Wondrous gifts: the ability — with a glance, a gesture, a word — to summon animals, bring forth fire, move the land. Fearsome gifts: They can twist a limb, chain a mind, inflict a wasting illness. The Uplanders live in constant fear that one family might unleash its gift against another. Two young people, friends since childhood, decide not to use their gifts. One, a girl, refuses to bring animals to their death in the hunt. The other, a boy, wears a blindfold lest his eyes and his anger kill.