A new island of stability: Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore

Powers won this year’s Nebula Award for novel. It was a strange choice in some ways—it’s fantasy, when the award is more often given to SF, it’s the third volume of the Annals of the Western Shore, when few awards are given to later books in series, it’s a Young Adult book, which are traditionally neglected by adult awards, and it hasn’t had much fuss made of it up to this point. On the other tentacle, it’s a safe choice—nobody could possibly object to giving Le Guin another award, after all, she’s probably the most respected genre writer still working. On the third tentacle, the ballot had Little Brother and Brasyl on it, both SF of the “important” kind that people are talking about. And on the fourth tentacle, Powers is such an utterly brilliant book that it entirely deserves the award, indeed it strikes me as the best Nebula winner for some time.

I love this series.

Le Guin wrote a number of wonderful books early in her career, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), The Dispossessed (1974) and then from Always Coming Home (1985) onwards she seemed to become more tentative, questioning what the nature of stories was and what stories it was possible to tell. Her books were never other than interesting, and always beautifully written, but some people said she had like Wells “sold her birthright for a pot of message” and I feel that she was wrestling with questions that were often too apparent, and that this sometimes damaged the fabric of story. It’s not that you can’t have ideas and messages and questions with too many answers, and you can be as didactic as you like in SF, it’s just that you need to have story first, to keep drawing you across. I always felt these books were taking up arms against the unsayable. She was re-imagining her old worlds, revising and re-visioning them from a perspective that was older, wiser and better informed but lacking the confidence that had created them.

Then, from the stories collected in The Birthday of the World (2002) onwards it was as if she found a new island of stability, like the stable elements some people say may lie on the other side of the transuranics. She had found her assurance again. She moved on to new stories. The Annals of the Western Shore, beginning with Gifts (2004) and continuing with Voices and Powers is marvellous, is major work from a major writer. The concerns—women, slavery, power and responsibility—are those that have informed much of her work, but here they are fully integrated into the underlying geology of the stories.

The Western Shore is a civilization that was settled out of the great uncrossable desert that lies to the east. It’s mostly small city-states of various kinds, with some barbarian nomads out at the edge of the desert. So far, so fairly-standard fantasy world. Gifts is set in the far north, among desperately poor people who have strange strong magical powers and practically nothing else. They’re scratching out a bare sustenance living from poor land, with very little contact with the rest of the world. Orrec Caspro is supposed to have the power of unmaking—if he points at something with his left hand it should disintegtate. He’s heir to his father who has the power, and used it to win his mother and defend his domain. This book is like a retelling of an old fairytale. I know it isn’t, but it has that power of something told and retold, combined with a deeply observed reality of detail. Orrec has to cover his eyes and go blindly about the world to avoid striking anyone by accident, and the details of that blindness and what it means are all fiercely real. It’s written in first person from Orrec’s point of view, it’s a story of growing up, but it’s also like a poem, with every word falling in the right place. The people of the uplands are clinging to their magical abilities, conserving them as best they can, turning inwards, when as Orrec realises at last the whole world is out there, and making is better than unmaking.

Voices is set in the city of Ansul, and is in the first person point of view of Memer Galva, a girl who has oracle powers. Ansul has been captured by the desert barbarian Ald, and the whole city is enslaved to them, and longing for freedom. Voices is the story of how Memer grows up and the city becomes free again, and not in an expected way. Again the physical reality of Ansul is beautifully imagined, and the ritual worship of ancestor shrines and the many gods of the cities is different and effective.

Then in Powers we have the story of Gavir, who is a slave. The children growing up in the earlier two books are heirs of domains, and their inherited magic is the magic of those domains. Gavir has magic, the ability to remember things that haven’t happened yet, but it has to be hidden. Etra, where he lives, is much like Republican Rope, with slaves kept in much the same way. Ansul, in Voices, is also a republic, and in Galvamand where Memer lives people can choose to become part of the Galva family, though there is a little distinction between those who have chosen and those who were born to it. Here we see a horrible perversion of that, where the Family take in the slaves and prevent them from keeping their own children, and the slaves are considered to have no ancestors of their own. Gavir is being trained to be a tutor-slave, and he grows up with the children of the family and the other slaves, all strongly characterised. Their childhood is in many ways idyllic. There’s a siege of the city, they get older, and Gavir’s trust and belief in the trust and relationship between the Family and the slaves is violated when his sister dies. He runs away and journeys through many different possibilities before learning who he is, what freedom is, and what he wants.

Powers is, like much SF and fantasy, a coming of age story. It’s also an examination of freedom and slavery, of what it means to belong somewhere, of trust and betrayal, of security and choice and responsibility. It has a detailed complex fantasy world. There’s often a sense of handwaving about what people actually do all day in fantasy worlds, but there’s none of that here, all the details feel exactly right, and she never mentions a detail that isn’t solid. It also fits together in an economic and political way, it feels as if it has real history and a tradition of literature, and it has odd magics always creeping out of corners. In Gavir’s experience of life as a slave we get to re-examine Orrec and Memer’s experiences as heirs to their domains and question what they do not question—but we get to do it at our own speed and in the context of wanting to know what happens next. This is a subtle and complex book with a strong thread of story drawing you on through.

I think it would stand alone, but be better if you’d read the other two—it’s definitely a style four series in my classification system. I’d have loved these when I was a kid and I still love them—by all means buy them for the young people you know, but buy them for yourself as well. If you have ever liked Le Guin and if you have ever liked fantasy you’re depriving yourself of a treat if you miss these books—and all three are currently available in slightly weird-sized but matching paperbacks.


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