Voices

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover image

Series: Western Shore #2
Publisher: Harcourt
Copyright: 2006
Printing: 2008
ISBN: 0-15-206242-4
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 341

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This is the second book of the Annals of the Western Shore and features Orrec and Gry from Gifts, albeit some years later and in a supporting role. I think it benefits from having read the previous book, but it's not strictly necessary.

Memer is a girl who grew up in an occupied city. She's a siege brat, the product of rape by the warlike and religious desert soldiers who conquered her city. They've stayed since as an occupying power, not bringing their families, staying on a war footing, and searching occasionally for what they believe to be a source of evil magic. Memer lives in the house of the Waylord, an elected official of their former self-government, who was tortured (unsuccessfully) for information about this source of power. She also knows a secret: a hidden room in the house, opened by writing, full of books. The invading army hates books for religious reasons, so the Waylord's house has become a secret refuge for books that people find, and all the books are stored in that room. The Waylord teaches her from the books and shows her how to translate older writings. But the back of this secret room, built into the side of the hill, is mysterious and frightening, and after one incident Memer avoids going back into it.

Into this world of suppressed anger, resentment at the control of the invading army, and secret resistance come Orrec and Gry. Orrec is a travelling storyteller, respected by the invading Alds even though he's not of their religion and is therefore unclean. He and Gry come accompanied by a halflion that Gry speaks with, and she takes the role of lion tamer. Memer encounters them in town, they come to stay with the Waylord, and then prove to be the final spark of disruption that causes the simmering resentment of the occupied city of Ansul to flare to the surface.

Gifts was a strong story with memorable characters, partly flawed because one of those characters was not entirely likeable. Voices improves on it in all respects. Memer is a delightful first-person narrator, brave and careful and angry, quick-minded and deep in her thoughtfulness and reactions. Orrec has improved considerably since the first book, and Gry is as wonderful as always, with a few short exchanges with Memer that made me catch my breath. Voices has all of the wonderful character depth and quiet respect for different personalities of the best of Le Guin.

To that, Le Guin adds a much deeper and more complex plot. Voices is about a war of religions, about resistance to invasion, and about rebellion. It's also about propaganda and how to inspire a population, and how the native religion of Ansul responds to being suppressed by the Alds. But it's also a story about violence, when it's warranted, and whether it works. It's a story about the complexities of rebellion, and about the constant war between seeing enemies as human and as obstacles to defeat. I don't believe I've seen these issues dealt with as deeply and with as much emotional force since Guy Gavriel Kay's exceptional Tigana. Le Guin's world does have magic and powers to help out, permitting some resolutions that wouldn't be as clean in the real world, but they rarely feel like a dodge, nor do they solve all problems.

As often seems to be the case with the best of Le Guin, I have a hard time putting my finger on why this book touched me so deeply. She has a quiet, deft touch with characters, a way of filling them with surprising details and moments where the reader can't help but respect them. Memer is one of her best: young and uncertain, growing greatly over the course of the book, struggling but never making decisions that cause the reader to lose respect for her, and developing relationships with the other characters over the course of the book that feel natural and real rather than forced by the plot. And Voices never felt slow. The pacing is excellent, and even moments of conversation and introspection maintain the forward momentum of the plot. It's a book where I could trust the author and settle into the flow of the book without second-guessing where it was going.

This is one of the best books I've read in quite a while. Highly recommended, although it's probably best to read Gifts first so that you're introduced to Orrec and Gry.

Followed by Powers.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-11-02

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21