Powers: The best in the series

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book review young adult Ursula Le Guin Annals of the Western Shore 3: PowersPowers by Ursula Le Guin

Powers is the third and, in my opinion, the best of the Annals of the Western Shore novels. In this book, we meet Gavir, a slave in the City State of Etra. Gavir was born in the marshes but was stolen, along with his sister, by slavers and brought to Etra. He has the power to clearly remember things he has seen before and even some events that have not yet happened to him. This gift is not uncommon in the marshes, but the people of Etra fear powers, so his sister tells him not to speak of it. His memory, however, is prized by the household who owns him and he is being trained to be the teacher of the households’ children. He is well treated (except by another slave who holds a grudge against him), well educated, and happy.

But things go awry and Gavir ends up on a journey in which he encounters different people, ideas, and cultures. And this is what Ursula Le Guin does so well. She makes us believe in these cultures, perhaps even admire them, and then, without explicitly telling us so, she show us that there are always negative sides to an apparently perfect society. And, without telling us to do it, she makes us think about such constructs as freedom, slavery, justice, leadership, work, trust, loyalty, education, and family. We find ourselves asking some tough questions: What is the value of a slave’s life? Is it better to be an educated, happy, and comfortable slave, or to be cold, hungry, ignorant, and free? Is true democracy possible? Or even desirable? What is the value of an education in a society or job that doesn’t require it? Is ignorance bliss?

Le Guin’s Western Shore novels are books for those who want to think about our own world while they read. They’re not escapist literature — there aren’t sword fights and dragons and quests for magic talismans. Instead, there are issues to think about and questions to ask… but not necessarily answers.
And this is all done, of course, in Le Guin’s perfect polished prose.

Each of the Western Shore novels stands alone, but the reader who reads them in order will appreciate the references to previously seen characters and societies. In some cases, we see characters and societies we experienced in one novel from a different perspective in another, and this adds to the complexity and depth of this world.

I listened to Powers on audiobook and was impressed with the production. Again, I recommend this format for the Western Shore novels.

Update: Powers won the Nebula Award for 2008.

Annals of the Western Shore — (2004-2007) Young adult. Powers won the Nebula Award for 2008. Publisher: Scattered among poor, desolate farms, the clans of the Uplands possess gifts. Wondrous gifts: the ability — with a glance, a gesture, a word — to summon animals, bring forth fire, move the land. Fearsome gifts: They can twist a limb, chain a mind, inflict a wasting illness. The Uplanders live in constant fear that one family might unleash its gift against another. Two young people, friends since childhood, decide not to use their gifts. One, a girl, refuses to bring animals to their death in the hunt. The other, a boy, wears a blindfold lest his eyes and his anger kill.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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