Love, learning and liberty

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Ursula Le Guin Powers
Orion Children’s Books 2008

Gifts, Voices and Powers, as well as being linked by shared geography and key characters, are together an exploration of what exactly constitutes magic and magical abilities. Gifts showed two individuals, Orrec and Gry, developing talents that could equally be regarded as non-magical in our own world, namely storytelling and poetry and empathy with animals. Voices focused on Memer, whose apparent gift of prophecy actually called into doubt that oracles, with their ambiguous messages, could actually foretell the future: were they not just a reflection of human attempts to make sense of gnomic utterances?

And now we come to Powers, the third and possibly the last of the Annals of the Western Shore. Here we meet the young slave Gavir who, probably as a result of his genetic make-up, has random and vivid but obviously accurate remembrances of future events that will happen to him; naturally they trouble him. While this is a trigger to much of Gavir’s actions and motivation, Le Guin is equally if not more interested in Gavir’s complementary gift, the talent of photographic memory which enables him to easily recall what he has read. And it is a talent that contributes in no small measure to the course of his young life. In a sense, too, this novel is also about the power we humans can wield over others less powerful than ourselves – slaves, women, children, the weak – and the fluid boundaries that come into existence when inequalities of power veer between the benign and the abusive.

Tolkien employed the term secondary world to refer to a fictional universe or setting with its own internal consistency, created by a human author as opposed to a demiurge or divinity. These kinds of worlds require carefully conceived physicalities, something that Le Guin enjoys conveying in many of her novels, especially through that venerable fantasy standby, the Map; Powers, along with the other volumes in her Annals, is no exception. While Gifts had a relatively small geographic range (the Uplands of the Western Shore) and Voices was confined to the city of Ansul (in the far south of the Western Shore), Powers has a correspondingly larger canvas, visiting more landscapes (the Sparta-like city state of Etra, wilder forests and marshland, the free city of Mesun).

Powers also occupies more pages than its predecessors. This is only fitting for perhaps the most intense of the three volumes in which Le Guin feels free to do what she is exceptionally good at, the visiting of the great issues of love, learning and liberty linked firmly to characters that you care about. Added to her background in poetry and interest in anthropology is her own gift, her power of sympathetic storytelling, her distinctive narrative voice that makes her one of the most consummate fantasy authors that I can think of.

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