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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.