Gifts (2004), by Ursula K. LeGuin

I was rather disappointed in Gifts.  The premise, while slightly reminiscent of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (2007), is sufficiently original to deserve admiration, as is of course LeGuin’s ability as an exceptional story-teller and innovative social and scientific thinker.  But her 2004 Gifts does not elicit the powerful response I have come to expect from her writing.

The gifts possessed by the familial societies in her novel have led to unrelenting inter-tribal strife—tension if not outright conflict—which permeates the tone of the text.  The tone thus suggests that Gifts would be an interesting text to consider according to Popular Culture Theory tenets, but does not render it an enjoyable story. Of course, social conflict is a worthwhile and valid topic for fiction; what would we do without such texts as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945)?  But LeGuin seems to throw away the chance to create a powerful social message for—or emotional response from—the reader. While her character Gyr questions the historical use of their magical powers, pondering “maybe they’re backwards. Maybe they were used for curing people, to begin with” (230), and uses her power (to call creatures to her) only to train domestic animals, too little of the discussion surrounding gifts centres on their origins, justifications, or possible uses.

The plot, too, lumbers on… A lowlander is introduced in the opening pages, but then only reappears after 220 pages of flashback; even then he seems to serve no real purpose, although his presence seems the frame to the narrative we are following.  The only effect he has on the story is to tell the protagonists Orrec and Gry that they would find jobs should they leave the lands of their tribes and move down to the more civilized lowlands (where Orrec’s mother is originally from).  Perhaps better internal monologue from our narrator, Orrec, might have linked the lowlander’s arrival in the beginning with the conclusion of the novel. If he and Gry had been more explicitly concerned with their gifts, or portrayed a deeper interest in relations between the tribes, I may have been more invested in the story.  As it was, Orrec’s simple narration of both past and present were like reading a history book from a foreign land with which one has no connection, nor necessarily wants to.

Perhaps, though, I am being too harsh. My daughter immediately ordered the sequel to Gifts (Voices, 2006) from the library, and my more generous thought is that the Annals from the Western Shore series (culminating with Powers, 2007) is perhaps ideologically cohesive and convincing as a series. It is so unlike LeGuin to write without a purpose. I will persevere.

Novel finished 17 November 2011; review written 20 November 2011.

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