Annals of the Western Shore
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1: Gifts / 2: Voices / 3: Powers
Winner of the 2008 Nebula, Powers is the concluding volume in a trilogy known as the Annals of the Western Shore. It is the last of Le Guin's award winners for me to review before completing my profile article on her entire career. I don't have the other two books yet, but based on the strengths of this one I will be getting them one of these days, just not sure when. When I do read them I will return to this page. It's the reason I titled this Western Shore and not Powers.
As far as I could tell this has no connection to the Earthsea stories, or if it does, the Western Shore is far from the lands traveled by Ged and Tenar, and the people here do not know their story. The main character and first-person narrator is Gavir, and he does have a power, although he does not undertand it completely, and has no control over it. He is a slave in the household of Arcamand in the city-state of Etra, having been stolen from his village, along with his sister Sallo, when he was about two years old. At the beginning of the book he is twelve. His master is relatively benevolent and generous. Gavir attends a school that teaches reading, writing, and history, his teacher being another slave, but some of his fellow students are noble born. He is being trained to teach later generations.
The fantasy element is slight, sometimes not being mentioned for hundreds of pages, and in some instances could be explained away as hallucinations. One of the religions practiced in these lands is the worship of Ennu, or Ennu-Amba to Gavir and others from the Marshes where he was born. She is thought of as a lion, and several times during the book Gavir sees her, trusting that she is leading him in the right direction. The fantasy element could also be removed from the story without changing it much. It could be viewed as an alternate history, or even a historical fiction about city-states in Greece or Italy. The various clans are constantly warring, rearranging alliances for mutual benefit, invading nearby states for slaves and other goods. Sallo is given as a concubine to Arca's eldest son. Like his father, Yaven is kind and considerate, treating Sallo as if his wife. He has a rivalry with his brother though, tragedy ensues, and Gavir is forced to flee. His travels take him in many directions, over several years, and for a long time he feels safe, hoping that Arca thinks him dead. Part of Gavir's power is his knack for remembering. Anything he has read he can quote perfectly, and during his travels he entertains others by reciting epic poems of former heroes. He is also very good at visualizing any event from his past, but slowly comes to the realization that some of his "rememberings" are things he hasn't experienced yet. Are they dreams or hallucinations, or does he have foresight of things yet to come?
At first the beautiful visual imagery in Gavir's story seemed too polished, until I realized he is writing it many years in the future, after much more study with a scholar in the far north city of Mesun, which is a slave-free state. Along with the fluid prose, Gavir expresses many profound thoughts that point out how fantasy (or science fiction) can be just as important in examining the human condition as any other genre, or even non-fiction for that matter. Subjects touched on include:
Man's penchant for war: "Perhaps men rely on war, like politics, to give them a sense of importance they lack without it...Women, I think, not needing the self-importance and not sharing the contempt, often fail to understand the virtue and necessity of warfare; but they may be caught in the glamour, and they love the beauty of courage."
What it means to be a leader: The first true leader I knew was this boy of seventeen, Yaven Altanter Arca, and I have judged others by him. By that standard, leadership means personal magnetism, active intelligence, unquestioning acceptance of responsibility, and something harder to define: a tension between justice and compassion, which is never satisfied by one without the other."
On the importance of recognizing worth, or lack of it, in books (echoing Sturgeon's Law?): "Everra was proud of the fact, 'No modern trash for Arcamand,' he said. I was willing to believe him that most modern writing was trash, on the evidence that so much old writing was trash."
On learning and writing: "I knew I was no poet, though I loved both poetry and history—the arts that brought some clarity, some hope of meaning, to human emotions and the senseless, cruel record of human wars and governments. History would be my art. I knew I had a lot to learn, but learning was a delight to me."
Throughout it all, Gavir realizes he was naive as a youth, accepting his fate as a slave as if there was no other way it could have been. Even after his escape, he encounters others whom at first he sees as free and honorable men, but they disappoint him later with their indifference to others and their lust for power. He doesn't even fit in his old Marsh village when he finds it, their ways are too settled and rigid, just as confining as a slave state. He finally makes it to the place he has seen many times throughout his life, a room full of books and a kindly man willing to teach him. It reminded me of the T.S. Eliot quote, "We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."
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