17 May 2021

Review: Annals of the Western Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

Collection published: 2020
Contents originally published: 2004-07
Acquired: December 2020
Read: May 2021

Annals of the Western Shore: Gifts / Voices / Powers
by Ursula K. Le Guin

This Library of America edition collects three late-career YA novels from Le Guin, the loosely linked "Annals of the Western Shore." They are not very connected-- they take place in the same fantasy world, but there's no overarching plot, and each installment takes place in a very different part of that fantasy world. Each book has a different protagonist, but the previous book's protagonist makes an appearance as well, providing some continuity. Unlike most of the other Le Guin LOAs I've read, this one didn't contain any stories I've read before. (I own paperbacks of all three Annals but have never gotten around to them.) It took me a long time to get through all three stories, but I think that's the fault of me (or of the world), not of the books; once my semester I was over, I shot through the final story in just a couple days. Like, I am realizing, a lot of Le Guin's late career work, these are all bildungsroman. (Which is why they were marketed as YA; none of them feel like the kind of YA fantasy that have come to dominate in the post-Hunger Games era (thanks God), but that makes it hard for me to imagine these being published as YA novels now.)

The first, Gifts, is set in a mountain country divided up into small estates, each ruled by a man with some kind of "gift." Our main character, Orrec, comes from a family where people can unmake things and people, literally unraveling them, just by looking at them. He lives in fear of his own power, and also fear of his father, whose high expectations for him are seemingly impossible to live up to. It's an emotional, tragic story. Le Guin, of course, always gets how to do fantasy: this story expertly unfolds a different society, but also a person, and at the same time it's a metaphor for all fathers and sons. It's desperately sad in parts, in a way that's hard to talk about; some of what Orrec undergoes is awful.

It's also cleverly told; the story is narrated by Orrec, but often we are not told things in any kind of objective way; Orrec is very clear that he is telling us a story that someone else once told him. Everything is mediated through the experience of someone else. As much as anything else, the Annals are all about the power of stories, especially, the written word, to change the world, and this ranges from published books to the stories we tell ourselves, and Le Guin is always attentive to the details of how that works, and Gifts is all the better for it.

The second story, Voices, I struggled to get into. It's about a girl named Memer who might be able to hear the voice of books in a city occupied by an outside force that has banned its religion. It might not be the story's fault, but I never emotionally connected with this one. Memer's inner life and desires never came alive for me in the way Orrec or the third story's protagonist did; her goal was murkier. I'd be curious to reread this, though, at a time when I can give it more of my attention and see if I like it more.

The first two novels are each about 150 pages in my LOA edition; Powers is almost 300. Despite that, I read it the quickest of all three, and it was definitely my favorite. Powers is about a slave boy named Gavir in a place called the "City States" who is being educated so that he can educate future generations of his masters. He struggles with loving a literature that depicts ideals his actual society does not live up to-- and he might have powers he needs to keep secret. He eventually goes on a long journey, and what results is a moving story about finding and making one's place in the world; there are two different key parts where I started to tear up here. One due to relieved tension, and one where Gavir finally makes it, the power of stories having saved him in the end. I am a sucker for a good travel narrative and a good bildungsroman, and Le Guin blends both here to excellent effect. In discovering the world, Gavir discovers himself, and in discovering Gavir, we readers discover ourselves too. Shot through with tragedy, but also redemption. Stories blind us and save us, and I felt a little bit saved when I finished Powers. I look forward to reading and savoring this one again someday.

It was a bit weird reading the back matter, where it's brought out that some of the themes and ideas of the Annals are responding to things like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; that was just fifteen years ago, but worrying about the doings of Donald Rumsfeld feels like something from another century in the Age of Trump. We used to be so worried about what America was doing to the world, but that's almost quaint now that the country America is destroying is itself.

This is the fifth LOA edition of Le Guin, and the fourth that I have read. They have all being great opportunities to visit parts of the Le Guin canon that are new to me, and revisit ones that I already knew I loved. It's not clear to me that if a sixth is planned, but man, I really hope so. More Le Guin is always needed.

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