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by Ursula Le Guin

(Orion, £10.99, 274 pages, hardback, published 21 October 2004. Orion Children's Books, £5.99, 288 pages, paperback, 31 October 2005.)

Review by Jack Deighton

cover scanGifts 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 seem real.

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.

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