Annals of the Western Shore
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
1: Gifts / 2: Voices / 3: Powers
Gifts is the first volume in a trilogy known as the Annals of the Western Shore. I read the third book first, mainly because it won a Nebula, I didn't have the first two at that time, and everything I'd heard about it indicated it was enough of a stand-alone story that could be appreciated without the others. I still think that, but would suggest reading them in the order they were published, and yes, I do recommend them highly. The last line of my original review still applies, and it is even more appropriate than I realized.
Each book is set in a different area of the Western Shore. There are maps in the second and third books, but no mileage scale, no way to know the distances between towns. Even though all of the events occur close to the same time period, there is quite a bit of difference in the societies depicted, and in the lifestyles of the various peoples. However, each has recognizable similarities to cultures in the real world. I'm pretty sure this has no connection to the Earthsea stories, or if it does, the Western Shore is far from the island groups traveled by Ged and Tenar, and/or the two series are separated by many years. Most likely not, since the main focus in the Annals is on history and the remembrance of it, and there is no mention of Ged. These lands lie on the western (obviously) edge of a continent, with a vast desert to the east. No one knows how wide that desert is, but it is believed that their ancestors came from the east across that dry land. There are books in the Atrian language, although there are few who can read them, or even know of them. Some societies treasure books and learning, others are indifferent to them, at least one thinks they are evil.
Orrec Caspro lives in the sparsely populated Uplands of the north, which reminded me of Scotland. He does wear a kilt. His father Canoc is the brantor (headman) of Caspromant. The suffix mant means "house of", a common designation throughout the Western Shore, although in areas to the south that suffix ends in a "d". Many, but not all, Uplanders exhibit hereditary powers, and people in the Lowlands fear them as witches. These gifts are normally passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. Canoc's gift is that of "unmaking", the ability to kill on direction of the left hand, but only when the prey is in sight. This can be used against predatory animals, or mere pests like rats and snakes, or to wither a tree to make it easier to remove while preparing land for farming or pasture. Of course, it can also be used against another human. Canoc keeps trying to force Orrec to develop his gift, but Orrec is reluctant, even doubts he has the gift at all. His mother was a Lowlander, abducted from a village to the south, thus she has no gift in her lineage. When Orrec realizes he may have the gift it frightens him because he thinks he may not be able to control it. As stories tell of a great, great, grandfather, Orrec begins wearing a blindfold. If he can't see, he cannot direct his gift of destruction. Orrec's close friend, someone he has long felt he would eventually marry, is Gry Barre, resident of neighboring Roddmant. Her gift is the "calling", the ability to lure animals toward hunters, but she shies away from that duty, instead using her gift to train and heal animals like horses and dogs. She trains a dog to be Orrec's guide.
Very few in the Uplands can read, or would read if they could, but Orrec's mother Melle had brought with her several of her favorite books. From them she teaches Orrec, supplementing the books with stories recited from memory, poems and epic histories, even composing some of her own. Orrec continues that obsession, eventually becoming a poet and scholar in this own right. Several less pleasant events intervene however. There is a rival to the west, another brantor who covets the lush pastures and livestock of the Caspros. For many years there is an uneasy truce, with only occasional poaching, but Brantor Ogge cannot abide his neighbors success for long. In the fallout of the conflict, Orrec decides he has tired of the restrictive nature of the Uplands. He and Gry marry, and venture to the south, in search of more stories and poems, to have adventures of their own.
Voices is set in the city of Ansul, to the south and west of the Uplands, even further south of the lands travelled by Gavir in the third book. Ansul had once been the center of a thriving nation, known for its libraries, universities, art, and diverse culture. I invisioned something like Renaissance Italy. Of course, that was before the invasion of the Alds, a nomadic tribe from the west edge of the desert. They are a monothestic culture, extremely intolerant of other beliefs, especially the polytheism of Ansul. They think Ansul is the home of demons, that all of Ansul's books, and those who can read them, are evil. The story begins in the seventeenth year of the occupation, and the narrator is Memer, a girl labeled a "siege brat" because her mother had been raped by an Ald soldier. Her mother had been a housemaid of Galvamand, and after her death Memer was adopted by Sulter Galva, Waylord of Ansul. A waylord is similar to a councilman, or perhaps more like the head of a chamber of commerce, whose duties were to negotiate trade with other communities. That activity is of course restricted by the Alds. They had tortured Sulter because they suspected Galvamand of being the seat of evil, a repository of forbidden books. Every other book in the city they had been able to find had been destroyed, buried or dumped in the ocean. Not burned, since the god of the Alds was of the Burning Fire, so flames were only for holy things.
The Alds were right about one thing. Galvamand did have a hidden chamber full of books, but up until the end of the book there are only two who know of it and how to get inside. As a small child, Memer had watched her mother access the room with a strange set of hand motions, memorized those motions, and almost daily would hide among the books and wonder about the markings inside. Sulter Galva would normally only go to the room at night, so missed Memer's daytime visits, and was not aware of her knowledge of the room until she was nine. Rather than banish her, he welcomed her to the room and taught her to read, even those in the ancient Atrian language, mainly because he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be gone, and someone had to carry on the work. After that, Memer would notice others coming to Galvamand, smuggling other books to be hidden and saved. Not all of the Alds were of like mind. Iorath, the Gand (governor) of Ansul, could not read himself, but he was familiar with songs and poems circulated by bards. He invites one of the most famous storytellers to entertain him, and that is how Memer meets Orrec Caspro and his wife Gry. They had traveled across the many nations of the Western Shore, with Orrec collecting more stories and poems, and composing many of his own. Their dog Coaly was no longer with them, having died many years before, their companion now being a lioness named Shetar, which Gry had trained into docility. They had also lost a daughter, named after Orrec's mother Melle, to disease. If she had lived she would be seventeen, same age as Memer. They become close friends and compatriots, although Memer keeps the secret of the library from them. For a while at least.
A rebellion has been brewing against the Alds, and some of the conspirators wish to use Orrec to inspire the populace to rise up. He is reluctant, first because he is not a native of Ansul, and also because the turmoil reminds him of the troubles he left behind in the Uplands. He wants to bring the joy of songs and poems and history to people, not use his gift to destroy. Yes, he finally realized he does have a gift, and it is one exactly opposite of his father's. Instead of "unmaking" he is a maker, a creator of stories. It is much the same as how Gry decided she wanted to use her gift to help and heal rather than bring harm to animals. Regardless, the revolt does occur, and is somewhat successful, although not complete. At book's end, Ansul is settling into the idea of being a protectorate of the Alds rather than an occupied nation. Council elections are allowed, and Sulter Galva resumes trade negotiations with neighbor cities. Orrec and Gry invite Memer to travel with them, eventually to settle in the university town of Mesun. She agrees, she does want that experience, but promises Sulter she will return to resume duties as librarian of the sacred books.
Powers concludes the series and brings it full circle. It is the last of Le Guin's novels to win a major award (for now). 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 maybe Persia or India. 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? Throughout all of his journeys, 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 at his old Marsh village when he finds it, their ways are too settled and rigid, just as confining as a slave state.
At first the beautiful visual imagery in Gavir's story seemed too polished, until I realized he is writing it many years later, after much more study with a scholar in the city of Mesun to the north, 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."
He finally makes it to the place he has seen many times in visions, a room full of books and a kindly man willing to teach him. It had been nearly a year since reading this before starting Gifts, and I had forgotten the names of the people he meets and studies with in Mesun. They are Orrec, Gry, and Memer. It reminds 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."
I'm not sure if it was Le Guin's intention, but this series was marketed as young adult literature. At the beginnings of each, the protagonists are adolescent to late teens. All feature the coming-of-age scenario, but they are also much more than that, can be appreciated by readers of all ages. After all, we were all that age once, or in the case of younger readers, you will be soon, so these stories should speak to you with truth and honesty. Remove the slight fantasy themes and there isn't anything that's different from what we all experience in life. All of the major literary themes are here; the questioning of purpose, the desire for knowledge, the need for belonging, the dangers of greed, jealousy, or the quest for power. Most importantly, it champions the beauty of language, the importance of history, the necessity of remembering and using that knowledge to shape a better future. Powers won the Nebula, and I have no problem with that, although I've only read one other book that was nominated for Nebula or Hugo that year. Voices was only nominated for a Locus award, but I think it's the best of the trilogy, close to the best I've ever read by Le Guin. If you've read any of my other reviews of her work, you know that is high praise indeed.
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