Book Review: Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin

Despite being recently published and winning the 2008 Nebula Prize for Best Novel, I very rarely see Powers discussed. It’s a part of Annals of the Western Shore, three Young Adult novels that are vaguely connected but can be read in any order, like the Hainish Cycle. But don’t be put off by the YA label. In the case of Powers (and presumably the other two) all it means is that the protagonist in younger and seems like little more than a marketing gimmick.

Gavir is a young slave who, along with his sister, is owned by a wealthy family in the city-state Etra. He’s being brought up to serve as a teacher for both slave and royal children and has a lot of access to old poetry and stories (there’s lots in the book, but it never reaches Lord of the Rings levels of poetry and song, if that turned you off Tolkien). He also has a gift: he can dream about the future.

As you might guess, Gavir, once a teenager, escapes and explores the world around him. There is little overarching story; at times, it seems almost picaresque, as he goes from one location to another. As a result, it never turns into a page-turner, but it is thought-provoking, particularly when it comes to slavery and freedom.

Surprisingly, Gavir’s precognition skills end up being less important than you’d think. Though they do come up (I won’t spoil it and say how), at the beginning it appears Le Guin is setting up the power to move the plot forward. Instead, other than a sub-plot towards the end, it serves as foreshadowing and little else.

And the ending—ugh. Pretty anticlimactic. Spoilers alert:

 

Gavir discovers that a member of the family he escaped from is hunting him and has been for quite some time; Gav’s just been lucky in avoiding him. There’s a cat-and-mouse game as Gav and a little girl who he picked up on his travels, run to a city in the north where everyone is free. The hunter almost catches them…and then instead of a fight or even some resolution with this character, they cross a river before he gets to them and that’s it. They’re free and no longer have to worry about him.

 

End Spoilers.

Despite the weak ending, it’s a solid book, well deserving of its award win. I’d give it 4 stars and recommend it as proof that old age hasn’t slower Le Giun one bit.

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