by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover image

Series: Western Shore #1
Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 2004
Printing: 2006
ISBN: 0-15-205124-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 274

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Orrec is a farmer's son, heir to a landholder in a hard-scrabble, backwater farming community in a medieval world. The people of the Uplands have a difficult and insular existence, built on subsistence farming with little trade and mostly isolated from any communities but their own. They have one compensation: the gifts. Each family lineage of the landholders (there are also serfs) has a gift, a hereditary power that varies in strength between generations and is clearly genetic. These gifts are mostly offensive. Examples include the ability to twist a living creature, to call a sickness and blight, and to force another person's mind to obedience. Orrec is heir to the power to unmake, whether that be a knot in a rope or the structure of a living creature.

Day-to-day life is primarily farming and herding, raising enough food to feed one's family and serfs, with an occasional hunt. The focus of attention beyond survival is preserving the bloodlines of each lineage with the same care and attention that the bloodlines of livestock are preserved and strengthened, since the gift can both be reinforced by good pairings and can be weakened and lost in bad marriages. Alignments between families are largely through marriage, animosities through families turn into feuds, and strict social conventions have formed around hospitality, respect in communication, and use of the gifts. The primary balance against all-out abuse of the stronger gifts is the firm belief in the gift's gift: if power is shown, a gift must also be offered by the one showing the power.

Against that backdrop, Le Guin tells a story in the quiet, inward-focused style so common in her writing. It's a story more about the people and their emotional states and reactions than about broader events or concepts. Much of it is told through introspection, with a story-telling first-person narrator. I find it takes a few chapters to get used to Le Guin's calmer, more rhythmic pace after reading other books. I wonder if I'm going to be bored, and then the story slowly draws me in.

Gifts is marketed young-adult, and the narrator and viewpoint character is of the awkward adolescent age common for that genre. It is a coming-of-age story of sorts, in that almost all stories about people that age that feature any real character development are. Orrec struggles with his gift, both in its use and its implications, and his family struggles with the consequences of his difficulties for his place as heir and the family's position in the local world. Throughout, the balancing factor is Orrec's friend Gry, a girl who is heir to the gift of speaking to animals and is similarly reluctant to use it for its expected local purpose: calling animals to be slaughtered in a hunt. Orrec is fighting with responsibility and the ability to do horrific things; Gry is fighting with wildness and empathy. Both understand each other in a way that's often deeper than words. Le Guin's ability to capture wordless scenes of comradeship is unparalleled.

The aspect of this book I found hardest to enjoy, apart from adapting to its slow pace, is Orrec. He can be by turns rebellious, angry, scared, and despairing, and in most of those states he's not horribly likeable. Le Guin portrays a youth troubled with far more responsibility than he can handle with sharp honesty, leaving me frequently wincing for Orrec or wincing at him.

The wonder of this book is Gry, who benefits from not having to live so deeply on-camera, but who also steals every scene she's in. She's quiet, thoughtful, a bit wild, wonderfully empathetic, and occasionally does exactly the right thing at the right time. It's through Orrec's relationship with her that the best sides of his character come out, and Le Guin thankfully never plays that false or decides it needs to be undermined to hammer home a point of angst. By herself, Gry makes this story worth reading.

The story takes a surprising turn in its conclusion, an opening and sudden release of claustrophobia that rewrites the coming-of-age template in a way that I found deeply satisfying. It also sets up a sequel — this is the first book of a three-book series — but does so by firmly wrapping up it's own plot. It can stand alone, but by the end of the book I wanted to see how the characters will grow. This is a great example of how to handle the first book in a series.

Gifts didn't hold my attention quite reliably enough to get my strongest recommendation, but Gry, the direction Le Guin took the conclusion, and Le Guin's knack for succinctly communicating quiet feelings that other authors struggle to capture make it worth reading. If the series continues in this direction, I expect to like the later books even more.

Followed by Voices.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-09-29

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