© Ursula K. LeGuin.
It’s been a few years since I read a new LeGuin fantasy, and I’ve missed that. This is the first of a new series called “The Annals of the Western Shore,” and aimed (at least by the publisher) at the young adult market, where LeGuin’s award-winning and wonderful Earthsea books now are often placed. There are some authors whose style and authorial voice immediately draw me into their world, and LeGuin is one. Never mind that this is a new series, by the bottom of page one I was back in LeGuin’s world and enjoying every moment of it.
The setting is the Uplands, reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with clannish families sparring with each other for scarce resources in a rugged, hilly landscape. Orrec is the son of one such clan leader, his best friend Gry is the daughter of another. As the book opens, a drifter from the Lowlands is spending some time with Orrec’s family, and he is full of questions about the “gifts” of the upland families. Each family holds power over their domain by virtue of the leader wielding a mental gift of some kind, either destructive or helpful. Orrec’s father has the power to destroy any living thing he sees with his mind, though aided by rituals and gestures that make it seem more like magic to the people themselves. Gry’s mother has the gift to call animals to her and command them. Other clans have other equally dangerous or helpful powers. And these powers are usually hereditary. Orrec is overdue to get his gift, and as the story continues, we see him struggling to find that gift, wondering if he really has it or not. He might not, as his mother is an ungifted lowlander.
This is, above all, a coming of age story for Orrec and Gry, and an exploration of the benefits, obligations, and dangers of their potential powers. Orrec, driven to despair, soon shows his power in a devastating, uncontrolled way, and realizing he might inadvertantly use it against someone he loves, agrees to be blindfolded, to keep him from using it until he can control it. This places new burdens on him and his family, especially Orrec’s father, who could use the boy’s help. Threats from a cruel-hearted neighbor make that all the more clear. Soon the internal struggle of Orrec is the least of his troubles. To say more would spoil the story, but let me just say that LeGuin has lost not a bit of her own power to tell moving stories that, despite a few fantasy or science fictional elements, are, above all, about real people and true things.
Highly recommended. Can’t wait to read the next one!