by Ursula K. Le Guin

Hardcover, 2004



Harcourt Inc. (2004), Edition: 1, 274 pages


When a young man in the Uplands blinds himself rather than use his gift of "unmaking"--a violent talent shared by members of his family--he upsets the precarious balance of power among rival, feuding families, each of which has a strange and deadly talent of its own.


User reviews

LibraryThing member ed.pendragon
In her 1970s essay, "Science Fiction and Mrs Brown" (first published in 'Science Fiction at Large' in 1976 and in 'Explorations of the Marvellous' in 1978) Ursula le Guin argued for the primacy of the human dimension not only in fiction generally but also in the SF and Fantasy genres. In 'Gifts' that primacy, which is manifested in pretty much all that Le Guin writes, is focused on Orrec, a young man who experiences the pangs of adolescence growing up in an isolated community in the Uplands of the Western Shore, pangs that most of us can recognise and empathise with. What gives it its fantasy feel is that the growing pains are linked to the apparent lack of a capacity, the Gift of Undoing, which Orrec is expected to inherit in his genes but which is not following its expected course.

The Western Shore is a little like an amalgam of North America's west coast (where Le Guin lives) and Northwestern Europe in the Middle Ages but with the existence of magic mostly taken for granted. As in her Earthsea books Le Guin shows her adeptness in creating the illusion that such supernatural magic can be the natural extension of one's normal abilities, so much so that the magic is easily accepted almost without the necessary conscious suspension of disbelief. Living myself in an upland community in Wales I can vouch for Le Guin's credible recreation of the pace and atmosphere of a similar dispersed settlement, albeit in a fantasy world.

How Le Guin resolves the tensions inherent in the plot and setting I'll leave for the reader to enjoy, but I'll just like to provide a hint: the word 'poet' is derived from a Greek word meaning to make or create, and so the counterpart to the Gift of Undoing must of course be a Gift of Making. As in so much fantasy there is strong sense of human justice, of balance between chaos and order, and the release of tension being the conclusion of the tale. And, like any good sequence of novels, there is the hope offered in the final pages of even more vicarious living in the lands of the Western Shore, in the sequel 'Voices'. Potential readers have a real treat in store.
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LibraryThing member satyridae
This is the story of Orrec, and how he comes to terms with his family's gift, which is the gift of unmaking. There are some pretty graphic descriptions of unmaking that are, oh, let's just call them effective. *shudder* I liked this book a lot, yet it's not going to be one of my favorites of hers. It felt like it took several chapters for Le Guin to hit her stride in this one. But it's still an excellent coming of age story, with depths at first unnoticed. Le Guin's a master of the understated.… (more)
LibraryThing member memccauley6
I’m not a big fan of first person narrative, so it took me three tries before I was finally caught by this story. The sparse prose, and the matter-of-fact setting and characters make this world wholly believable - but dark and grim. The questions raised about morality, truth, and social obligations will leave you pondering long after the last page is turned.

If you like this type of story I strongly recommend HAWKMISTRESS by Marion Zimmer Bradley. (Teenage Romilly has to break away from her hardscrabble mountain life and her strict family in order to grow and master her special gift.)
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LibraryThing member shanaqui
I love Ursula Le Guin's writing a lot. Gifts is a YA book, technically, but it doesn't have to be just for young people. It's a lovely story, like a fairy tale, and it's very easy to read, but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading for people who are older. The main character is a young boy, but the emotions of other characters, like Orrec's father, are there and it's important to understand them and try to identify with them. And Ursula Le Guin's writing is simple and lovely, easy to read but also bewitching. I love her Earthsea books more than I liked Gifts, but Gifts is something different -- no epic quest, mostly just a boy coming to understand himself, and to some extent, his father.

I like the way the chosen blindness is explored. I love reading about blindness in fiction and this is something that's maybe more interesting -- voluntary blindness. I like the character of Gry, perhaps even more so because when Orrec wanders around with his eyes blindfolded, she blindfolds herself for a day to try and understand him. And the friendship between her and Orrec is left to grow quietly -- I don't feel like Le Guin intrudes and forces them together, only that it seems natural when they do get together.

The descriptions of Orrec's mother's death are painfully real. The metaphor of the sandstorm not being able to pick him up and whirl him past that part of the story, and the way he withdraws... Sometimes I felt he was just a little too inactive to be really, really interesting, and I liked Gry for trying to push him out of a it a little, but it's also understandable considering his circumstances.

The end feels abrupt, but then, it ends on a quietly lovely note, and I assume that the next book picks up on at least some of the threads from Gifts. I'm looking forward to finally reading the rest of the trilogy -- I first read Gifts when it was first out, I think, and didn't rush to get hold of Voices and Powers.

As for what the book explores -- since Ursula Le Guin usually seems to have something in mind to explore... it's not as obvious as in some of her books. Family relationships are important, and expectations, and I like the idea that someone else mentioned, that the gifts they have, unmaking or calling animals or whatever, are an analogy for things like engineering and aspects of science that get misused. The fact that the gifts grew out of healing and working with animals, and the way Gry refuses to use hers wrongly, might be another of Ursula Le Guin's lessons. Either way, her 'agenda' is subtle in this book -- you can read it just as a story, if you wish.
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LibraryThing member sturlington
This young adult fantasy is set in a pre-industrial land where different clans of people carry different genetic “gifts.” Some gifts have beneficial properties, such as the ability to communicate with animals. Others are more destructive, such as the gift of the narrator’s people, to “unmake” any thing, living or inanimate.

Orrec as a young boy is waiting for his gift to manifest. With it he is expected to protect his family’s land, livestock and people from their aggressive neighbors. But when it does come, he cannot control when he uses it or who he uses it on, so he must blindfold himself to keep from turning it on the people he loves.

Orrec tells his story to a visitor from the cities in the Lowlands, where they do not have the gifts and consider them to be folklore. This is a very readable fable, as we learn through Orrec’s narrative more about the gifts and the land in which he lives. But perhaps because this was written for young adults, or because I just finished A Wizard of Earthsea (a very similar story), it all feels too familiar. This would be an excellent book to give a young reader, though, who is just starting to explore the fantasy genre.
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LibraryThing member AltheaAnn
I was a little bit disappointed when I had heard that this recent book from LeGuin was a ‘children's book' – but I needn't have worried. It's just another one of those publishers' marketing ploys. This is definitely a story that can be appreciated by readers of any age.

It's a very bleak story, in many ways. It tells of two young people in a remote, backwards society. Life is harsh, they're dirt-poor, inbred, always violently feuding over the slightest of pretexts – and to make things worse, each of the tiny clans of this backcountry has a ‘supernatural' ‘gift' – each of which can be used for violence and ill. To avoid using a destructive force, the young man Orrec voluntarily gives up sight, while his best friend Gry flatly refuses to use her ability to ‘call' animals to have them be slaughtered at the hunt.
However, there seems to be little chance for the compassionate aspects of their natures to grow, considering the world that surrounds them, and the demands and sacrifices that their families ask for.
LeGuin, here, succeeds brilliantly at portraying the narrow, barren life of these Upland ‘tribes;' how the people themselves are not all evil, but how completely their way of life informs and circumscribes their existence – while at the same time letting the reader know that more exists in their world, just beyond these people's ability to comprehend. We see both the values and priorities of their daily life – but can also see how, from another perspective, those priorities are not merely pathetic but incredibly sad.
The book is dark, but insightful, and not wholly without hope.
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LibraryThing member srcsmgrl
Gifts, by Ursula K. LeGuin is the story of a brave young man that chooses to blindfold himself rather than use his wild gift of "unmaking" with the help of his childhood friend. Together they protect his land and people from his abilities and from outsiders that covet their land and livestock.

As usual, LeGuin does a beautiful job of creating new cultures and worlds where the human characters express feelings as we know them, enabling the relation to our reality. The blindness and its necessity are situations we can feel even though the reason, the gift, is a new concept. The story flows well and gives an excitement and fondness for literature through the main character's own love of the written word, the gift of which was won late in life.… (more)
LibraryThing member tanisha364
This is the first book I've read from Le Guin. I've heard that she's a great SciFi writer. Based on this book I would say that was a lie. Of course, as always, I will read another book by her to verify.

"Gifts" didn't seem to have any real plot. I felt like she was trying to introduce the characters, even up until the end. I had no real investment or care in any of the characters. I was more concerned for the animals (dogs, cows, horses) than the people. It moved very slowly and I kept waiting for something to happen, like an adventure. I'm still dumbfounded and not quite sure what the purpose was.

There was such potential there!! The idea of these unique gifts could have really been exciting, but nothing was done with them. No feats were undertaken or shows of strength.

I would NOT recommend reading this book.
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LibraryThing member hgold
I thought this book was fantastic, especially in the light of the folk tale and myth lesson. Having a book where part of the world experienced something that was fact and another part of the world considered it a legend has interesting connotations for myths in the classroom. Some myths are still considered another form or reality in some cultures, and telling them as completely untrue stories instead of as explanation for cultures of why things happen or why to act a certain way may be alienating to some students.… (more)
LibraryThing member bfertig
Solid. Boy struggles with coming of age, learning to use his inherited Gift or power and deal with family issues.

The main character has a fair amount of introspection, for an adolescent male character, which makes it interesting. But there were times when the characterization sometimes felt a little flat, and the plotlines that followed from it felt a bit contrived.… (more)
LibraryThing member AnnieHidalgo
I think I like LeGuin's short stories more than any longer work she's ever published. There are a lot of interesting what-if scenarios in here - the best being a tale about a group of children who never sleep, and what happens to their brains as a result.
LibraryThing member bragan
The first book in a young adult trilogy, this novel is set among a culture of farmers and herders whose ruling families each have a single, often terrifyingly lethal, psychic gift. It tells the story of a young man who appears unable to control his own ability and thus has to deal with the horribly literal implications of the phrase "if looks could kill." It's a very simple story, but nicely written, with an intriguing setting, and it provokes some interesting thoughts about the nature and use of power without ever getting preachy on the subject. It's not remotely Le Guin's best -- it lacks the brilliance of the Earthsea books, for sure -- but it's a solid, decent YA tale.… (more)
LibraryThing member tuckerfrye
OK I'll admit it. This book made me cry. Not a lot, but a single tear did leak out. I was totally surprised by this story since I usually don't like Ursula K. Le Guin's books besides the Earthsea series. The story is beautiful, the world and magic incredibly unique, and the characters simply breathtaking.
LibraryThing member cajela
The first of what's currently a trilogy of young adult fantasy, this should appeal to lovers of the Earthsea cycle. It's a coming of age story, written softly and gently in LeGuin's inimitable prose style.

The child Orrec lives in the uplands, harsh grazing and farming lands with a political landscape of clan-like family alliances and squabbles. Each clan has its own gifts, or magic, and Orrec's father has the dangerous art of Unmaking. With a look and the will, he can undo knots and fragment stone - applied to life, this kills. Others can call animals, or cause wasting deaths. Clan alliances are partly about sharing and breeding to keep these gifts. Will Orrec inherit his father's gift, and learn to control it?… (more)
LibraryThing member devilish2
Dragged a bit at the beginning with a little too much explanation of the world. It improved though. Not an enormous amount happens. It's a bit of an introspective tale. Well told though.
LibraryThing member AlexDiaz727
I'm a little conflicted when it comes to this book. On one hand I like the story of this book the basic plot and the story seemed to move along nicely (but that might be because I normally read longer books). On the other in the end it left me... well basically confused.

The foreshadowing is blatant throughout the book and I almost feel as though the author is writing "down" a bit for younger readers. Frankly I hate it when authors do that.

And though the story seems to develop at fair pace. The foreshadowing caused predictability through most of the book it almost seemed slow and boring at times.

In the end there is a bit of a twist, but then the reader is left with what seems to be the inevitable ending and the twist is left unresolved. I'm still not sure if what the main character thought was true or if in his arrogance he just assumed it was.

Even though this book is the first in a series I still feel it needed more of a conclusion. It left me feeling as though I read the first 300 pages of an unfinished story.
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LibraryThing member KimJD
Enjoyable high fantasy that lends itself to discussion of how we use the gifts we are given, but I just never found Orrec to be a very sympathetic character, and Le Guin's writing style kept me at arm's length.
LibraryThing member DebbieMcCauley
The warring Upland tribes live far above the Lowlander's villages and have become the stuff of legend regarding their extraordinary powers or 'gifts'. Teenage Orrec is one of the Uplanders whose gift, the power of 'unmaking' has not yet appeared which is a concern to both him and his father. Once it looks like his gift has appeared and is uncontrollable, Orrec is blindfolded for the safety of those around him.

I really loved the books in the Earthsea Cycle, but unfortunately this book didn't live up to those earlier titles. I found the language a bit stilted and the flow of the book could have been improved.
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LibraryThing member DelightedLibrarian
Interesting premise
LibraryThing member themulhern
Straightforward, quintessential Ursula LeGuin. I get the feeling that her recent adult novels are the experimental ones, and in that in these YA novels, she sticks much closer to her unique Ursula LeGuin formula. In this book, as well as the Earthsea novels, there is something of an inverted lifestyle porn. LeGuin protagonists seem to own a few goats, the ragged leather shirt on their backs, and perhaps a single jewel, but they can cause an entire mountain to fall on their enemies. It doesn't make that much economic sense. However, her writing is deep, rich, kind of slow, and usually a bit tragic with some acute observations about human nature. OccasinThe most memorable one in this novel is that about conversational bullies (they always have the advantage at the beginning). I am looking forward eagerly to the next one.… (more)
LibraryThing member wealhtheowwylfing
Orrec is born into a Gifted family in the Uplands. Although his family controls a fey and unsettling Gift, they are nevertheless barely able to eke out a life from their sparse and rocky land. The Gifted families raid each other for the few resources that remain: livestock, wood, serfs. Cut off from the rest of the world by a combination of shunning and pride, the people of the Uplands grow more stunted and inbred with every generation.
Unable to find a wife among his own people, Orrec's father rode into Lowlands village (he had never seen so many people) and kidnapped a young woman. Lovely and cultured, she instilled a love of stories and reading in Orrec. But her kindess and memories of art and civilization can only do so much--Orrec is still trapped in a claustrophobic society with no choices and no hope.
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LibraryThing member vgnunez
The story is slow but Le Guin's writing is elegant and lyrical. What I loved most about the book was not the characters or even the story but Le Guin's characterization of the world of stories and how they help heal the soul. Her passages that talk about stories and storytelling are poignant and beautiful.

My favorite passages include:
"I had no sense of the sacredness of a story, or rather they were all sacred to me, the wonderful word-beings which, so long as I was hearing or telling them, made a world I could enter seeing, free to act: a world I knew and understood, that had its own rules, yet was under my control as the world beyond the stories was not. In the boredom and inactivity of my blindness, I lived increasingly in these stories, remembering them, asking my mother to tell them, and going on with them myself, giving them form, speaking them into being as the Spirit did in Chaos." (188)

"You have the gift, you have the gift of unmaking! I don't. I never did. You tricked me. Maybe you tricked yourself because you couldn't stand it that your son wasn't what you wanted. I don't know. I don't care. I know you can't use me any longer. My eyes or my blindness. They're not yours, they're mine. I won't let your lies cheat me any more I won't let your sham shame me any more. Find yourself another son, since this one's not good enough.... The book lay open, the book of the great poet, the treasure of joy and solace. But I could not read it. I had my eyes back, but what was I to do with them? What good were they, what good was I? Who are we now? Gry had ask. If I was not my father's son, who was I?" (258-259)
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LibraryThing member ezwicky
A coming-of-age story about power; having it, not having it, using it. It is a fully imagined world, where we see one of a multitude of cultures, and people struggle to get by despite very strong psychic powers, and the hero's emotional life is well drawn. Nonetheless, I found it less satisfying than her best.
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
I'm going to give LeGuin one more chance to win me over with this short book meant to be accessible to modern youngsters, as I couldn't make myself like her classic adult fiction.

Ok, finally tried. Honestly, got to page 50 and just couldn't go on. I don't read for plot & hate suspense novels, but even so this bored me. I don't have a problem with unfolding worlds and characters, and being patient until I get to know what the situation is, but I just couldn't even begin to empathize with anyone or imagine wanting to spend time in that world.

I have other books to read, and the author has other fans, so ok. We're done.
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LibraryThing member TheDivineOomba
This is a coming of age novel set in the Uplands - people are poor, but are born with certain gifts that run in families. Orrec is born to a family that has unmaking as their gift - and when he accidentally destroys a whole grove, he blinds himself with a blind fold until his gift can be controlled properly.

It has themes of family loyalty vs individual wants. Story telling is very large part of this story, with the stories of Orrec's Mother teaching kindness to all brings happiness, where Orrec's Father's stories tend to be about taking what one can, while protecting ones own brings safety. These two opposing viewpoints are written with a balance, the uplands being a difficult place to live, so one must be careful in who they let in, while the lowlands have lots of resources, so can be generous with their kindness.

Ursula Le Guin knows how to write a story - she manages to show the kindness of being insular, without being preachy. But, this is a children's story As such, its short, with a fairly simple message.
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