#LoveHain: The Left Hand of Darkness

Photo by Dylan Thompson on Pexels.com

It’s the last Friday of the month and time for a consideration of the next title in our read of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish fiction, #LoveHain. We now come to one of her more famous – or possibly more notorious – titles, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Below will appear the customary three prompts to encourage you to discuss your response to this novel, just in case you don’t know where to start; but the chances are you will have no need of them, this being a very thought-provoking narrative!

Afterwards I’ll remind you of the next novel up for conversation and the date the next three prompts will appear.

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Empathy for the rebel

Jason disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece:  vase figure in Vatican Museum
Jason, disgorged by the dragon of Colchis, with Athena and the Golden Fleece: vase figure in Vatican Museum

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.
Orion Books, 2004 (1980).

I’m not a violent person. I grew up watching American TV serials where the Lone Ranger shot revolvers out of baddies’ hands (who then merely had a sprained wrist to nurse) or comedies such as The Three Stooges which — like a Tom and Jerry cartoon — allowed the victims to recover with a shake of the head after a potentially life-threatening concussion to the brainbox department. Violence was depicted, the consequences papered over. I was uncomfortable with it, but that was all that was on offer.

These days, as it has been for several decades now, violence is more graphic in entertainment media, whether films, comics or video games. Not just villains are hurt but innocent bystanders and targeted victims. The alarm is raised every so often about how the consumption of this vicariously experienced violence without appreciation of the consequences stunts one’s capacity to exhibit empathy and how it can encourage sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies.

I mention this not to stir up more argument and controversy but to contextualise my normal avoidance of thrillers in whatever form.

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Fatally reductive? #LoveHain

Ursula Le Guin, 1995. Photo: Marian Wood Kolisch

Worlds of Exile and Illusion
by Ursula K Le Guin.
Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions.
Orb Books, 1996.

**spoiler alert**

Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalized such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though these generalities can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. “Ah, the Night Sea Voyage!” we cry, feeling that we have understood something important—but we’ve merely recognized it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.


A decade or so after the publication of Rocannon’s World – the first novel in a series which has variously had attached to it the name Hainish or Ekumen – it and the two following titles (published in relatively quick succession in 1966 and 1967) appeared in a compendium first entitled Three Hainish Novels (1978). When, two decades later, it appeared as Worlds of Exile and Illusion it cunningly combed key words from the titles of Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions; under whatever name the collection demonstrated a loose unity in that it (a) referred to a League of All Worlds, and (b) shared some concepts and referred to some names in common.

There are also several themes, patterns and approaches in the trio of novels, though that’s not to say that Le Guin worked to any kind of formula: each title has its own musical notes and influences, landscape and personages, its own character. But at the risk of being, in her words, “fatally reductive” I do want to look a little at the “archetypal events and images” that form a large part of the journeys in these novels (and not a few of her other later ones, such as 1968’s A Wizard of Earthsea and 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness) so, as it were, to praise and not bury them. 

Why? Because, despite superficial appearances, she doesn’t trade in fantasy clichés.

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Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre

‘The Tragedy of Arthur’ (image credit: Random House)

The Tragedy of Arthur, a novel
by Arthur Phillips.
Gerald Duckworth & Company, 2011.

“Imperfect is the glass of other’s eyes
Wherein we seek in hope of handsome glimpse
Yet find dim shapes, reversed and versed again,
Which will not ease our self-love’s appetites.”

— Act II Scene vii

Fiction is a lie that readers are willingly complicit in, for even when we know it’s all sham we allow ourselves to be hoodwinked. At least, until we reach the final page. Verisimilitude, truthlikeness notwithstanding, our capacity to suspend disbelief, to temper scepticism with a degree of rosy-spectacled optimism gives fictional realism a chance to temporarily worm its way into our belief system.

And so it is with Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur. Here are lies masquerading as truth, with a purported historical document and a memoir dressed up as nonfiction, daring us to naysay it. Try as I might I couldn’t help but hop from a desire to accept what was on the page to an amused stance in which I knew it was all an elaborate con.

And Arthur Phillips – or rather “Arthur Phillips” – aided in that fence-hopping by himself continually oscillating from doubter to believer, and back again. Is the five-act quarto drama which completed this account a unique historic document or an ingenious fake?

Continue reading “Most excellent: #ReadingTheTheatre”

Cat and mouse – and a rat

St James’s Park, London © C A Lovegrove

The Chase by Ava Glass,
first published as Alias Emma.
Penguin Books, 2023 (2022).

A cat and mouse game taking us through London’s streets. A possible rat who seems bent on jeopardising a covert mission. An enemy who seems to anticipate one’s every move. Ava Glass’s thriller not only keeps the reader on the edge of their seat but introduces us to a protagonist who deserves to survive after all that’s thrown at her.

But survival is not all that she has to accomplish because her mission is to persuade a potential victim to accept the protection that’s being offered to him, a protection he seems strangely unwilling to accept. Will his reluctance over-complicate matters, a situation already compromised when back-up fails to materialise?

The Chase is more than merely a chase, though that’s at the core of this novel; we are given backstories to encourage us to invest in characters, intrigue to keep us guessing, and familiar landmarks made sinister by the nature of the pursuit, the prospect of capture, and the reducing chances of escape.

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The cage of our ignorance: #LoveHain

© C A Lovegrove

City of Illusions (1967)
by Ursula K Le Guin,
in Worlds of Exile and Illusion,
Orb Books, 1996.

“They let us be, here, in the cage of our ignorance.”

In this novel Ursula Le Guin does what many a good author does by revealing how matters stand bit by bit. For example, if familiar with her previous two speculative novels – Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile – we might be conditioned to expect City of Illusions to be set on some faraway world; but it may take us a while to fathom where exactly we are and, a little less exactly, when the story takes place.

But the illusions don’t stop there. The famous Epimenides paradox centres on his reported statement that “All Cretans are liars.” The paradox arises from the fact that Epimenides was himself from Crete, making arrival at the exact truth of the matter an impossible task.

In City of Illusions the protagonist – and we the readers too – have to confront that paradox because upon its solution, or more specifically a  resolution, will depend how we confront our individual selves. When dealing with liars do we as it were fight fire with fire, however distasteful that may seem? Or do we maintain our integrity and refuse to play their game, whatever the cost?

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Abominable mirrors: #1940Club

#1940Club. Simon @ stuckinabook.com and Karen @ kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’
by Jorge Luis Borges,
in Labyrinths. Selected Stories and Other Writings.
Translated from the Spanish by James E Irby.
Penguin Modern Classics, 1970 (1964).

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature.

As reportedly the longest of Borges’ short stories, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ is also one of his more philosophical and, indeed, fantastic. It describes the discovery of a previously unrecorded country called Uqbar, then its curious relationship to a place called Tlön and, further, the existence of something called Orbis Tertius.

In discussing the thinking of the Tlön metaphysicians Borges seems to be partly reiterating his own mode of thinking: philosophy is astounding, is fantastic, but he does it in a way which reflects his wonder, his reading, his imagination and his playfulness.

And I use the word ‘reflect’ quite deliberately because the author not only introduces the idea of a mirror at the very start but also aims, in the words of Hamlet, “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” – the way we view our own world.

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Monoceros tales

Unicorn, by Edward Topsell

You must doubtless, surely, have noticed that today marks Easter in many countries, a day of hope for the future, a date to celebrate the delights of spring in the northern hemisphere, and 24 hours for many to indulge in the sugar rush that comes with gorging on chocolate eggs.

But 9th April is also a date that marks the annual National Unicorn Day  – or perhaps it should be called International Unicorn Day because, regardless of where it was first conceived back in 2015, it has now spread around the globe.

The unicorn’s origins are many and various, with many a culture across the world and over the centuries claiming the creature as its own. But what they all agree on is that it’s distinguished by having a single, unique horn on its head (preferably on the forehead), giving rise to the name ‘unicorn’ or ‘monoceros’. Not all beasts with a single horn are the same, however.

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Building castles in Spain

Roche Castle in ruins, 1880 print

The Teeth of the Gale by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox, 1997 (1988).

The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.

As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way.

The action ranges from Galicia in the north-west, across the Basque Country and Pamplona to the lands south of the central Pyrenees, thus covering some of the ground familiar from Felix’s earlier adventures, latterly with Juana.

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Peril in the Pyrenees


Bridle the Wind by Joan Aiken.
Puffin, 1986 (1983).

In the chaotic years that are the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars young Felix Brooke is journeying from England to his home in Galicia in Spain when he is shipwrecked off the Basque coast of France, thus precipitating the strange sequence of events in this novel.

He convalesces at the fictional Abbey of St Just de Seignanx, on the French coast near Bayonne (very much like Mont-St-Michel in France or St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall) but finds that due to a form of amnesia partly brought on by a supernatural happening he has lost three months of his life. Rescuing Juan, a youngster his own age, from hanging, he helps them both escape the terrifying Abbot Father Vespasian by trekking east before crossing the Pyrenees on their way to hoped-for freedom in Spain.

But, not unexpectedly, things don’t go to plan as they are haunted by the memory of the Abbot and chased by a group of brigands.

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A homage to 19th-century adventure stories

Arno’s Castle, Bristol, the model for the stables at Asshe in ‘Go Saddle the Sea’

Go Saddle the Sea by Joan Aiken.
Harcourt, 2007 (1977).

Twelve-year-old Felix Brooke, ill-treated at home in northwest Spain, resolves to travel to England to find out the truth about his father.

Thus begins a young adult novel, set after the Peninsular Wars in the early 19th century, that is enjoyable both on its own merits but also for its many references, influences and intricacies.

Joan Aiken wrote this after field trips to Galicia and her careful research and attention to detail add weight to the seeming authenticity of the story told by its young hero, whom one implicitly believes is a thoroughly reliable narrator.

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Oppos’d to honesty

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout: http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Never Before Imprinted:
A New Shakespeare Sonnet Identified
by Eugene Fletcher-Beaumont.
University of New Texas Research Unit for Education:
NTU Press, 2023.

On the title page of Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published by Thomas Thorpe in 1609, it has the advice ‘Neuer before Imprinted’ (though, in fact, a couple of the sonnets had already appeared in print in 1599). The last sonnet, number 154, is immediately followed by ‘A Louers Complaint’ dubiously attributed to the same author.

Yet Professor Eugene Fletcher-Beaumont (surely a case of nominative determinism in action here, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher being collaborating Jacobean playwrights) believes he has identified a further sonnet amongst papers collected by the Irish editor Edmond Malone, one of the foremost Shakespearean scholar of the Georgian period.

Fletcher-Beaumont makes, he believes, a strong case for this individual work, comparing it with the defective but important 1609 text and with subsequent academic editions for consistency in style and thematic treatment with the Shakespearean canon. Does this fourteen-line verse stand up to scrutiny as authentic?

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