Jun 26, 2009

YetiReview: Gifts, Voices, and Powers

20 words or less: This trio of YA fantasy novels focuses on teens maturing through difficult situations but contains a deeper message for readers everywhere.

My Ratings
Gifts: 4/5
Voices: 3.5/5
Powers: 5/5

Pros: Simple yet elegant prose, allegorical themes pulled off by a genre master, accessible at multiple levels

Cons: Some YA tropes. Slowly paced. Lacks concrete plot.

The Review: When I learned that Ursula K. Le Guin’s Powers had won the Nebula, I was surprised. I hadn’t heard any buzz about the book and knew almost nothing about it other than it was YA (Side Note: I am not prejudiced against YA, Little Brother was one of my favorite reads last year). I assumed that it was a prestige award based on name recognition alone. I thought it was 2004 all over again, when Joe Haldeman won the Nebula with the almost indescribably terrible Camouflage. I do make an effort to read the award winners though and I set out to read her Annals of the Western Shore books, if only to satisfy my completist compulsions.

I could not have been more wrong.

I was going to review these books individually but I realized that they were best read together, so I might as well speak to them together. In fact, as I read the second and third books, my feelings toward the prior books morphed and changed and I started to take meaning from the stories that I wasn’t expecting; mostly due to their YA “stigma”. These books may be written for kids and about kids, but they have some very profound ideas hidden in their depths.

Each book focuses on a different protagonist growing up in a different part of the Western Shore in a different social climate. In Gifts, Orrec Caspro faces the pressures of being the son and heir of a noble bloodline. In Voices, Memer deals with being a young woman born into a once noble family subjugated by misogynistic and repressive conquerors. In Powers, Gavir struggles with the harsh realities of being a slave in a rigid class structure. Without spoiling the details, each of the characters experience life changing events that affect themselves as well as the social structure in which they were raised. I will say that the events are not epic in the sense of the traditional fantasy novel. There is no Dark Lord, no Chosen One, and no Elves, no Dwarfs, no Dragons, or other fantastic creatures. Aside from the imagined geography and some minor mystical abilities, these books are very personal stories that could have taken place within our own history.

All three novels deal primarily with the paths the protagonists take through their formative years, foregoing strong plot cohesion to focus on who these characters are. The stories meander through their lives, lingering on seemingly mundane moments but not hesitating to leap forward months or years without warning. In this respect they are typical YA fare, focusing closely on the central characters and dealing with the questions and uncertainties that are a part of growing up. There are also some even more adult topics, namely slavery, rape, and murder. These are definitely not children’s books. While some YA novels get heavy handed with their discussions of maturation and societal expectations, Le Guin demonstrates why she is a master of the craft, managing to write realistic teen characters without having them come across as angsty and putting them through difficult situations without being explicit or gratuitous. In case you didn’t know, Le Guin is 79. She hasn’t been a teen for 61 years.

The Annals of the Western Shore work as YA fiction, and work well. However, the real enjoyment for me was the message within the stories that Le Guin seemed to be sharing with her readers. Granted, I could be reading things from the text that were not intentional but Le Guin’s love for writing and literature really came across in her characters. I’m reluctant to use the term “swan song” because I’m confident Le Guin has more stories to tell, but I got the sense that these novels were a reflection on her career as an author and the importance that writing and storytelling has had in her life. Despite dramatically different situations, each one of these teens has the benefit of literacy and education in their lives, and in each case, it becomes a source of satisfaction and strength. Through her characters, Le Guin demonstrates her belief in the power of stories; that they can transcend mere words to become beauty, healing, inspiration, knowledge and more. Stories can motivate people to change, bind communities together, preserve history and culture, bridge societal gaps, and capture the imaginations of all that hear them. There is a intrinsic power in stories, a power available to anyone regardless of class.

Mirroring this theme, Le Guin also addresses the common reasons why people in real life don’t read and creates analogs within the lands of the Western Shore. There are people who believe stories are only for children, cultures that think books and knowledge can only corrupt, and places where the written word simply doesn’t exist. She doesn’t belittle them for their beliefs but pities them for all they are missing. I really connected with her emphasis on the power of words (it’s more discreet and less cheesy than my brief synopsis), especially as a lifelong bibliophile who has often felt like their passion for reading wasn’t fully understood. I also fully endorse and respect her efforts to communicate this idea to the YA readers at which this book is targeted. I encourage anyone who loves reading and literature to try these books, or at least to give them to your teens. I know I will be.

As a final note, Powers might not have fit my expectations of a Nebula winner but this book connected with me and spoke to me on a level few do. Le Guin is truly a master of the craft and Powers is yet another spectacular book in a continually unbelievable career.

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