Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the most respected names in fantasy and science fiction. She doesn’t need to boost her career by cheap gimmicks or by following current trends.
So I was a bit shocked to read about how Le Guin’s editor had suggested she write a young adult fantasy novel — not necessarily a Harry Potter clone but for same reasons that all those other Potter clones exist — and that Le Guin agreed to take on the challenge.
Le Guin has always done whatever she wanted, and generally she’s wanted to do everything. I admire her for that. She’s written science fiction, fantasy, mainstream novels, poetry, and books for kids. She has collaborated on photography projects and strange audio items related to her books. All of her short stories have been re-released in gorgeous new editions, and you can buy her non-fiction musings in various collections. Also just out is her excellent guide to writing called Steering the Craft.
Interestingly, none of these have been block-busting, industry-shaking bestsellers like Harry Potter. My suspicion is that this doesn’t bother Le Guin too much. Sure, any writer would want to see higher sale numbers, but Le Guin is at a real sweet spot: lots of critical acclaim, and enough sales to justify any creative choice she might want to make. For someone at Rowling’s level, what possible follow-up could there be? Le Guin can spend 6 years to write her masterpiece of anthropological fiction Always Coming Home, a project about as foolhardy or brave as it sounds, but I see Rowling as much more constrained by her success (I could be wrong of course; Rowling’s soon-to-be post-Harry career will be revealing).
And young adult fantasy has been around many, many years, pre-Rowling, so there’s a history of elegant books in the genre, including Le Guin’s own Earthsea trilogy. She wrote those three books in the late 60s, and has since followed them up with a handful of interesting sequels. The books are still popular, popular enough to warrant their own miniseries (which was so bad that Le Guin felt forced to break the usual silence that most writers have towards execrable adaptations).
All this is to say: I was leary of Le Guin’s new book, Gifts, but I also felt that it had potential.
The optimistic side of me was entirely correct. Gifts, a YA fantasy, is nothing like any of the Harry Potter clones flooding the market. Yes, it’s obviously meant for younger readers — for one thing, it’s much shorter than a regular novel. The characters are two adolescents, so the storyline is a relatively straightforward coming-of-age tale.
But Le Guin really delivers here. Gifts goes to show that when a talented writer takes a look at something as hackneyed as the rite of passage the results can be new and emotionally affecting. I’ve always found Le Guin’s prose to be deceptively simple; Gifts is, if anything, even more clear and direct without losing any of its gracefulness.
Gifts was a bit grimmer than I was expecting. In a remote area called the Uplands, various clans live and die caught up in long-running feuds. The blood feud is the narrative framework here, and Le Guin complicates matters by adding inherited magical traits. If your clan can control wild animals with mental powers, then you have to marry within your clan to make sure the trait gets passed on. Le Guin has worked out the genetics of the situation, and it serves to intensify the pressure on the people in the story. If you don’t marry according to orders, your clan might get wiped out if the next generation is powerless.
The main characters are a boy named Orrec, whose clan can destroy anything within eyesight, and his best friend Gry, a girl from the clan who can control animals. Le Guin does a nice job of ratcheting up the psychological anguish for Orrec, who isn’t sure if he has the clan’s power, and when it seems that he does, isn’t sure if he’s a danger to everyone around him. So he puts on a blindfold and lives that way for two or three years. Gry herself is upset that her power to call animals to her will is mainly used for purposes of hunting for sport.
There’s also a villain in the story, something that doesn’t happen that often in a Le Guin book. A nearby clan is knocking off other clans, and the evil leader Ogge is scheming against Orrec’s family. Like any blood feud, the situation is likely not going to end pleasantly.
I was a bit worried that the ending was going to peter out (I still have bad memories of Le Guin’s Eye of the Heron, which seemed completely unfinished to me), but Le Guin finishes with a flourish and a strong character moment. It’s a moment of self-discovery that’s predictable in retrospect, considering that Gifts is a story of two adolescents finding their place in the world; this doesn’t matter, since Le Guin makes us care about these people.
* January 2009 update: I’ve written some thoughts about the two sequels to Gifts, which were similarly excellent. *