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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Nothing Earth-Shattering, But Gifts Is A Good Read

I'm sure I've mentioned before that I'm not a big sci fi/fantasy reader. In fact, I had read little fantasy (except for a brief Piers Anthony binge, but that was mainly to impress a guy) before the first Harry Potter novel came out. I think HP turned my thinking about the genre around, and since then I have enjoyed a lot of sci fi/fantasy books. Although I've yet to venture out into "high fantasy," I think I've read enough in the genre to recognize some of its recurring themes. So, when I picked up Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin (my first by her), I thought, "Okay, it's been done before, but I'll give it a shot." I think my initial assessment was right on: Gifts is nothing Earth-shattering, but it's a good read.

Gifts concerns the Uplanders, a group of people who live high in the hills, ekeing out a living on their meager farms. It's a hardscrabble life they lead, farming the poor land and protecting their livestock from thieves in neighboring domains. Still, the Uplanders have one thing that makes them unique - their gifts. Some are able to communicate with animals, others have exacting skill with knives, still others have the power to twist a man's body into unnatural and excruciatingly painful shapes. While these "gifts" are generally considered to be blessings - they help feed, defend and protect their masters - not everyone is delighted to have them.

Orrec and his best friend Gry are teenagers burdened by their powers. Gentle Gry can beckon animals with her mind, a talent that is revered by the region's hunters. Because she "saw as the mice saw, as the cat saw, as my mother saw, all at once" (56) her world is "unfathomably complex" (56). She detests bringing animals out of the hills to be torn by hunters' bows. Orrec's abilities are even more frightening. Because his father has the gift of "unmaking," he stands to inherit the same skill. The ability (Orrec's father can turn any man, animal or structure into mush) makes its bearer a protector of the people, a position Orrec also stands to inherit. He's excited to receive his gift, but when he sees the kind of destruction he is capable of, he is repulsed and terrified. To protect those around him, he blindfolds his eyes, believing he cannot "unmake" that which he cannot see. Together, Orrec and Gry navigate their harsh world, where refusing to use their gifts is as despicable as not having them at all.

The characters in this book are especially well-drawn. Orrec and Gry are unique individuals, but the questions they grapple with are typical of teenagers (and adults) of any time or place. At one point, Orrec thinks, "I had my eyes back, but what was I to do with them? What good were they, what good was I? Who are we now? Gry had asked. If I was not my father's son, who was I?" (259) Who hasn't asked these questions? Because of their self-doubt and their fierce desire to do right, I found the friends to be sympathetic and compelling characters. I think they will resound with kids and adults alike.

Le Guin's haunting, lyrical words give this book a dark tone. It's not a happy story, but it is engrossing. I didn't love it like I did Harry Potter or LOTR, but I enjoyed reading the book. Gifts is actually the first in the Annals of the Western Shore series. I can't tell if the story of Orrec and Gry will be continued in subsequent books. Since I'm anxious to know where their journey takes them, you can bet I'll be reading the rest of the novels. Le Guin has certainly earned my respect as a writer, and although I enjoyed Gifts, it lacked the wow factor for me. Don't fret, though, I'll be searching for it in more books by this fantasy queen.

Grade: B+


  1. Reading books to "impress a guy"...what a unique concept. Love it. :-)

  2. Susan, I too have been slow to warm to the fantasy/scifi genres. In fact, I'll make a confession -- I haven't read the Harry Potter books or LOTR. Wow, that felt good to get off my chest. :) However, I have recently read the Chronicles of Narnia series (3 of them) by C. S. Lewis and loved them. I also just finished The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly over the weekend. It was really good!

  3. What can I say, Sam? When you're trying to catch the attention of a science fiction nerd, you have to read like a science fiction nerd :)

    Lisa - I love both HP and LOTR - you HAVE to read them. I also love Chronicles of Narnia, although I haven't read them since I was a kid. I have The Book of Lost Things on my bookshelf. I'm excited to read it. It sounds excellent.


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