(Orion, £10.99, 274 pages, hardback, published 21 October 2004.
Orion Children's Books, £5.99, 288 pages, paperback, 31 October
is a coming-of-age story, intended, at a guess, as a book for young
teenagers, and as such has to be written with scrupulous care. In this
respect it is exemplary. Tightly-plotted, there isn't a word out of
place. Quintessential Le Guin in fact.
The book is set on a world which might be Earth but could just as easily
not be, in what is almost a default fantasy land, with a scrape-an-agricultural-living
Uplands, towns sufficiently far off that they barely impinge on the
main narrative and with a pseudo-feudal social organisation (with some
stress on the feud) but which never feels false and was also lifted,
for me, by hints of a Scottish or possibly Irish ambience -- some nomenclature
which had the appearance of Gaelic; a Lowlands to go with the Uplands;
activities which are akin to border reiving; mention of kilts.
The Uplands dwellers are witch-folk, some of whom have differing abilities
called "gifts," some malign others not, which run in families,
father to son and mother to daughter. Since each domain relies on its
Brantor's (chieftain's) ability for protection against raids from other
domains, marrying within the line is important in order to preserve
the gift. This social system is not quite as simple as it sounds. As
you'd expect with Le Guin, there is an etiquette involved with using
the abilities, an interchange of favours, obligations to fulfil. Orrec,
the teenage narrator, is a scion of an impoverished minor bloodline
whose gift is "unmaking" - destruction in plain terms - but
his father was unable to marry in the lineage and took (literally) a
Lowlander for a wife.
As he grows into adulthood Orrec's gift is slow to develop but when
it is manifested it is "wild," uncontrolled, and he has to
be blindfolded to prevent its indiscriminate or involuntary use. This
makes him a greater object of fear and a more potent symbol of the gift
than if he could control it.
For a long time the book's first incident - the arrival of a lowland
thief in Orrec's domain - seems to be a strange starting point, with
the subsequent chapters' slow revelation of Orrec's life up to that
point almost making you forget this beginning; but it allows Le Guin
to paint a quick picture of her world, to draw the reader effortlessly
into its strangenesses, and, in the end, the thief provides a pivot
on which the book's resolution turns.
Orrec's friendship with his childhood sweetheart Gry is superbly handled
as is the fracturing of his relationship with his father following his
mother's death - which was likely due to the use on her by a neighbouring
Brantor, a blustering braggart, of his "gift" of wasting.
In Orrec's achieving of wisdom he has to make sense of what his gift
actually is and to come to terms with it, which outcome, here, does
not take the usual form for a fantasy hero.
This last is a measure of Le Guin's skill. What always comes through
with this author is her characters' humanity and her affection and sympathy
for them and Gifts is no exception to this. These people always
The book is not quite a Wizard of Earthsea but it gets very
close and as is usual with Le Guin's work, Gifts, despite its
quota of disputes, conflict and death, is a life-affirming experience,
well worth reading by adults of all ages.
Elsewhere in infinity plus: