© Ursula K. LeGuin.
This is the second book in the “Annals of the Western Shore,” I reviewed the first one, “Gifts” here. Opening the cover, the first thing I saw was a map, drawn by the author, of the entire Western Shore, on which I could see The Uplands, setting of the first book near the top, and a quite small part of the whole, and lots of interesting place names right down to the bottom, where I found Ansul, the setting of this book. And over the page, a map of the city of Ansul. Always a good sign, maps, in a fantasy. Shows the author has thought things out geographically. And Ursula LeGuin, master fantasist that she is, has thought out every other aspect of the land, its peoples and societies as well.
Memer, a teenaged girl, lives in a house in a conquered city, once the greatest house there, now fallen on hard times, like all the city has, under the occupation of a conquering army from the deserts to the east. Previously a place of great learning, the occupiers have banned books and reading, and every bit of native culture they are aware of. In their own culture, though, storytelling is revered, and the arrival of the famed poet Orrec and his wife Gry (from the first book) launches a turning point for the city that Memer is soon at the center of. Memer has been secretly taught to read and love books by the master of her house, the former leader of the city, now nearly forgotten. Befriended by Orrec and Gry, Memer watches the city gradually awaken to a rebellion against their occupiers, and also the awakening of ancient powers centered in the books hidden in her own house.
One subtext in the first book, “Gifts,” that I forgot to mention was that of Orrec’s love of stories, and how his mother taught him to read, a rare skill in his original home. Now he’s become a celebrated poet and storyteller, travelling the entire Western Shore, writing and researching old legends and tales. The importance of reading and learning continues in this book, with even deeper meaning. And there is magic as well, hidden magic waiting to spring forth when the city needs it most. And Memer is right in the center of that, as well.
Beautifully written, wonderful characters, a plot that kept me guessing much of the time, as the city in it balanced on the edge of disaster. Despite the fantasy setting, there is so much here about people that rings true, one can learn much from it. As in all the best fantasies. Highly recommended!