(review) Ursula K LeGuin's: Annals of the Western Shore trilogy

These are the pictures of all three book covers, from the edition printed by Orion Children's Books, the edition I've read. The cover artist is David Wyatt, and I've seen his other brilliant covers for Ursula other books, like Tales from Earthsea.

It's really good (as well as sometimes really annoying) that you can read about this trilogy on Wikipedia. It makes reviewing the books both easier, and a bit unnecessary... but I want to say my part to.

First, I want to say that if you've read other books by Ursula, you SHOULD definitely read these too. Her writing is, nearly, always phenomenal. And the books will not leave you untouched.

book one - Gifts
This is the story about how the boy - Orrec of Caspro - and the girl - Gry of Barre - grow up in the mountains of the Uplands, a quite barren place where small communities eke out a living by farming and keeping animals. Orrec's father is an important man in that he is one of the gifted; people who have abilities beyond normal humans. Different gifts runs in different families: Gry's family Barre have the gift of calling animals, the Cordemant have the gift of blinding, or making deaf, or taking away speech. The Rodds can send a spellknife into a man's heart. The Callems can move heavy things - even buildings, even hills. And the Caspro gift is the worst and best of all: it is the gift of undoing: an insect, an animal, a place... There are even be more gifts than these, as is hinted in the book (e.g. the gift of slow wasting), but I won't go into that here.

The catalyst of the story is that since Orrec's father married a Lowlander woman, the gift does not run true in Orrec, and to both protect his people (as well as his pride) this forces Orrec's father to deceive Orrec into thinking he has the gift. Only, he makes Orrec believe that his gift is "wild", and therefore not under Orrec's direct cognitive control. The only way to "stop" Orrec from using his "gift", is to blind him (not permanently! only with cloth) - since the gift of undoing only apparently works when you can see your target. A "wild" gift is something to fear - especially with the gift of undoing - since it can run rampant on an entire population and kill off both the people and the land. By making the people of nearby settlements believe that Orrec is "wild", his father effectively hinder raiders from taking from his people. Still, his scheme goes badly, and by the end of the book, Orrec has both lost his father, mother, and gift.

Towards the end in the book, Gry speculates that all gifts have both a "backwards" and a "forwards" way in how they work. She reasons this since her own gift works both forwards and backwards: she can both hear and talk with animals. She argues with Orrec whether or not his family's gift could have started out as a form of healing, but because the ability to heal can't be used as a weapon - one of the main reasons the Upland territories aren't in constant war over land and resources - someone must have at one time discovered how to use it to kill instead. Gry also confesses that she - unlike her mother - won't use her gift to call animals to the hunters during a hunt, this effectively making her worthless in her people's eyes.

Thinking out loud, what would the "logical" solution be to the gifts? Gry's ability to call animals and talk with them is of course a form of telepathy, and the ability to form a "spellknife" and hit it into someones heart must be a form of telekinesis (think "hard air" meets soft flesh), but what about the other gifts? The gift of slow wasting got me thinking about cancer, and if it would be possible for someone to induce random mutations in people/animals/plants in such a way that they eventually would die from it, which in the book becomes apparent in Orrec's mother. The gift of undoing - the one Orrec is made to believe he has inherited - could also be a form of telekinesis, but one where the user randomly separates the molecules that make up an object.

I read Gifts in just 3 h, mainly because the language was so easy and the story kept you at it. Ursula has written the story in a way that makes it "a tale within a tale within a tale...". The narrative is broken up - but not destroyed! - by Orrec's speculations about his gift, and his mother's stories of her childhood, and of his and Gry's own musing when they are both children and adults. The true ties that bind the story together is the telling itself; as Orrec in his youth, and later in his blindness, turns to stories for comfort. This storytelling later ables him and Gry to travel to the Lowlands, in search of his mother's family.

book two - Voices
The story in this book takes place in the Lowlands, in the city of Ansul, once a place of scholars, knowledge and libraries. But that was before the Alds invaded, and what once was a flourishing coastal city, now is only a shade of it's former self. The Alds believe that "demons" and "wizardry" can be found in writing and books, they kill and destroy everything that has to do with this, and declare the invaded people unbelievers (which makes them worse than kept cattle, apparently).

Although Orrec and Gry play a vital part of the story, this time it's a girl called Memer who is telling the story.  Her mother was raped by one of the invaders when the city was taken, and Memer was born a halfblood, looking Ald and hating it and the invaders with all of her young heart.
At the beginning of the book, Memer is about 25 years old, and she's writing about what happened in her life when she met Orrec and Gry at the age of 17. She was then living in the House her mother had belonged to, the House of the Oracle, with a man titled the Waylord as it's elder. Although a House usually has it's name from the Family living it - Memer and the Waylord belonging to the family of Galva - this House is special.
A little like in ancient India perhaps, where a household was made up of families all connected by blood. The House was once a great one, and even housed the local university, but now - like the city - it is only a shade of it's old glory. From the Waylord, Memer learns the most precious gift of all: to read, write and speak other languages. As the story progresses, you learn that the real reason behind the mystery of the House of the Oracle: the family who founded have this affinity for the magic of books and prophecy. This is later reveled as the real reason why the Alds fear writing and books.

As friends of the Waylord plan revolution, with the arrival of the grand storyteller Orrec and his wife Gry as the spark which will be set the city burning (actually, it's only a tent that does), Memer will be the one who becomes the embodiment (the Voice) of the Oracle when it all goes down. And because of her, Orrec, Gry, the Waylord, the Gand (the leader of the Alds in Ansul), the broken Oracle fountain and a children's story book - the city will become free once again. Catalysts for a people just wanting to be free again, and get their culture (their voices) back.

I think the most important theme in the book is both ignorance and forgiveness. Mainly how one really can't forgive the ignorance of the invading Alds, and how much it eventually hurts Memer to give up her hate of them and work to form an understanding between these two different people in Ansul.

book three - Powers
Again, we are taken to a new city - the republic (and democratic) city of Etra. Much like ancient Greece or Italy, the democracy is based upon a system of free men and slaves. In Etra, the republic is governed by Seats in the Council; each seat a representative of a House. Each House is governed by its Mother and Father; the eldest free married couple living in the House.

Gavir and his sister Sallo are, like so many others, people "stolen" from the Marshes to become slaves in the city. In the House of Arcamand, Gavir is brought up to become the future teacher to the children of the House, enjoying his formal and classic education (writing, reading and classic literature), while his sister is to become a "gift girl" (in essentium a harem woman of the House, "gifted" to one of the free men of the House). While growing up, and retaining no memories of the Marshes they came from, both Gavir and Sallo are at first happy. It is first when Etra is besieged that their suffering at the hands of their "masters" begin.

Like Orrec in the first book, struggling with (as he thought) a 'gift' he didn't want, so Gavir also has a gift. His is the gift of, as he calls it, "remembering". Only... he remembers things that have yet to happen. Also known as precognition, he 'knows' some things that will happen to him, but most of it are things that he doesn't understand, that is, until they happen. He doesn't consider it a very useful gift, since what he "remembers" doesn't make any sense.

It does however make some sense to the reader, since through his "memories" we "know" that Gavir  will survive the siege, will leave Etra for the Marshes, evade the man his 'masters' send to hunt him down, and eventually find Orrec. You don't know how this will come to pass, you only know that it will. In that, you and Gavir get to share a part of what it could be like to live with precognition: knowing something you don't understand and can't explain must be frustrating to no end.

Gry, Orrec and even Memer are present in the book, but only on the last few pages. What I considered particulary sweet was the fact that Gavir "remembers" Memer, and although this memory doesn't play out in the book, we readers know that he and Memer belongs together.

The thing that really define this book, is the dichotomy between the free men and the slaves in Etra. Although the traditions of the Houses seem strange at first, Mrs Le Guin manages to depict the lives of both the free and the slaves in such a non-judgemental way that you at first don't react to how FUNDAMENTALLY WRONG it all still is. Like Gavir learns, through great personal tragedy, so you learn through him that as long as someone else has the final say to your whole life, you are never free. Gavir's life, and life philosophy, changes according to the "cage" he is currently in: from gilded (while happy in the House) to suffocating and horrible (the siege and his escape), to decietful and untrue (living with the 'free men' in the woods) to stifled with tradition (the Marshes), until his eventual "freedom" arrives with Orrec as its beacon. Or should I say, when Orrec points out that as a citizen of [the city] Urdile, he will finally be free. The dialogue goes:

//“I'm a runaway slave.”
“A citizen of Urdile is free,” [Orrec] said, still frowning. “No one can declare him a slave, no matter where he goes.”
“But I'm not a citizen of Urdile.”
“If you'll go to the Commons House with me to vouch for you, you can become one tomorrow. There are plenty of ex-​slaves here, who freely come and go to Asion and the City States as citizens of Urdile"//