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Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt, 512 pages

Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929, the daughter of a writer and an anthropologist. She published her first novel, Rocannon's World, in 1966. Her fourth novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat she repeated with The Dispossessed (1974). The Earthsea trilogy established her as a master of fantasy as well as science fiction. She has also published poetry and short story collections, and she received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her critical writings.

Ursula K. Le Guin Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Voices
SF Site Review: Gifts
SF Site Review: Gifts
SF Site Review: The Lathe of Heaven
SF Site Review: Tales from Earthsea
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Interview: Ursula K. Le Guin
SF Site Review: The Other Wind
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Review: The Dispossessed

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

Powers is the third book in Ursula K. Le Guin's ongoing series of YA books, Annals of the Western Shore. These are set in fairly standard fantasy world, at a tech level a couple of centuries in arrears to that of our world. The three books so far (the others being Gifts and Voices) are loosely linked by a couple of common characters, Orrec and Gry Caspro: we meet them as children in the first book, where they are the protagonists; and they have much smaller roles as adults in the later books. The three books are set in geographically separate areas of the "Western Shore," and they concern characters with differing magical abilities. But in the end the magical abilities are less important than the social milieus of the characters. Indeed, after three books I can detect a common theme. In each book, the characters are first displayed in a society based in one way or another on slavery. And in each book, the eventual key to escaping slavery is not violent resistance but rather learning.

Powers is probably my favorite so far in this series. Gavir is a boy who was kidnapped from his home in the Marshes as a tiny baby, and taken to the City State called Etra to be a slave in the House Arcamand. The Father of the House of Arca is a relatively benign slaveowner, and Gavir, along with his sister Sallo, grows up fairly comfortably. Gavir does have a magical talent, apparently unique to people of the Marshes -- he occasionally "remembers" future events. But his sister urges him to conceal these visions.

Slaves in this House are educated, and Gavir in particular is a promising scholar, and he is trained to become a teacher. But his abilities also earn him the resentment of the mentally ill younger son of the House, Torm, as well as Torm's toady, the slave Hoby. Meanwhile his beautiful sister Sallo is destined to be a gift-girl -- a slave whose only duty is to provide sex for the masters -- but happily for her she and the heir of the House, Yaven, fall in love, and she will be given to him as a mistress.

Things seem well enough -- Gavir tends to believe, with most of his fellow slaves, that such a social order is the natural way of things. Only slowly does he begin to perceive injustice -- in part because of Torm's unchecked violence, which extends eventually to murder (only lightly punished); and in part because he dimly realizes that in many ways women in this society -- even "free" women -- are enslaved in different ways than men. His life begins to change even more when Etra is besieged -- it seems that the various City States are constantly at war. Then a further tragedy strikes, and Gavir, almost by accident, escapes. From there his path takes him to a couple of colonies of escaped slaves -- who sadly replicate many of the ills of the societies they escaped -- and then eventually to his original home in the Marshes. He must try to understand the nature of his own talent -- but his past as a slave also continues to haunt him.

I loved this book throughout. Gavir is well-depicted and a good person. His life is plausibly portrayed, full of tragedy but also some contentment. Naturally his fascination with scholarship and reading endears him to typical readers. Le Guin nicely uses his visions as foreshadowings of future events in the book, without ever letting them take over the story. She portrays two (or three, if we count the escaped slaves) societies in interesting detail: this has always been a strength of hers (daughter, as she is, of a famous anthropologist). And the book avoids unrealistic clichés: for instance, even the "good" slaveowners are not shown (as we might naïvely hope) coming miraculously to their senses and renouncing their evil ways. There are no easy answers, but there is hope.

Copyright © 2007 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at

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