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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Book Review: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

The Fifth Season is the very deserving winner of the 2016 Hugo award for best novel. It takes place in a fantasy world where every few hundred years a cataclysmic, multi-year long disaster will happen, much like a miniature extinction event. The book starts as another is beginning. “Magic” in this world works by controlling earth, and most people cannot be taught: you either have the gift or don’t. these people are feared and reviled, kept away from society in their own slave-like community.

I won’t say much more about the book itself, because I went in cold, not knowing what to expect, and came away exhilarated so I don’t want to say too much. The world-building is incredibly interesting. And the plot…I remember as a teenager reading a ton of fantasy books and reaching parts where it would be almost painful to tear myself away from the action. That’s like the whole second half of this novel. Just go out and read it, it’s one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in a long time.

Book Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest work, The Buried Giant, is an odd book. It has a fantasy setting, but it’s more literary and slow than any other novel in the genre I’ve read. It has an interesting plot, but it takes a while to puzzle out what’s really going on.

The basic premise is that a fog of forgetfulness has fallen over the land of England–not England as it is now, but rather the England of Arthurian legend. Axl and Beatrice are an old couple living on the outskirts of a town. They are treated poorly by the residents, but no one seems to remember what could have brought this on. They decide to leave in order to go see their son, who they vaguely remember and think is nearby. Along the way, they encounter ogres, knights, and Saxons (who despise the Britons), and gain some companions.

All of this is told in Ishiguro’s typical artful prose, which is neither too purple not too minimal.

But while it does feature some excellent meditations on death and love, the plot itself is a bit lacking. The main story turns out not to revolve around the old couple but rather some of their new friends, and by spending more time with Axl and Beatrice, the plot ends up a lot slower and more underdeveloped than necessary. There’s definitely a good story with them, but it would have been more fit for a short piece or novella than the better part of a novel.

If you haven’t already, definitely read The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go, his two masterpieces. If you like them, move on to this. Even if you are a big fan of fantasy and want to get acquainted with Ishiguro through this one, I would say hold off and check out his others. This is neither an amazing Ishiguro or fantasy book (although it certainly is worth a read).