Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
Reviewed by Lisa Goldstein
19 October 2007
Powers is the third book in Ursula Le Guin's Western Shore series, following Gifts and Voices. I don't know how many books the series will eventually run to, but Le Guin's Earthsea tales might give us some indication: once upon a time there were three volumes, the "Earthsea trilogy," and then suddenly, after a hiatus of seventeen years, she gave us a fourth book, and eventually a fifth and a collection of short stories, and we were able to spend more time with unforgettable characters.
Even with only three volumes, though, it's possible to trace some of the themes running through the Western Shore series, and to see the ways in which the stories mirror each other. Each book is narrated by a young person living in one of the lands of the Western Shore, and each narrator has a special ability that sets him or her apart from the community. In Powers we meet Gavir, a slave boy who has the ability to see (or, as he puts it, "remember") events that will occur some time in their future.
More important to him, though, is his day-to-day life in his household. Being a slave is all he knows; he rarely thinks to question his position, far less rebel against his masters. In fact he considers himself lucky; he and his sister were not sold off to different households, and his owners treat their slaves with as much kindness as the laws permit. He is even taught how to read and write, and as his teacher says, "Born wild as you were, a slave as you are ... yet you've been taken into the heart of a great household and given all you need—shelter and food, great Ancestors and a kindly Father to guide you. And as well as all that, nourishment for your spirit—the learning I was given and can pass on to you" (p. 67).
Le Guin is brilliant at creating whole societies, and here she shows us a slave culture that is for the most part easy, almost bearable. Slave children and children of the masters learn together and play together, and when a slave like Gavir shows promise at his studies he is encouraged. So comfortable is this life that it is only gradually borne upon Gavir that he is owned, property, that his masters can do whatever they like with him.
Then one of the masters commits a terrible act upon a slave—an act that is, however, perfectly legal—and Gavir escapes. He joins the Barnavites, free people who live in the Heart of the Forest, and later goes looking for his relatives in the Marshes, where he and his sister were captured. In the Marshes Le Guin once again creates a seamless culture: marriage customs and initiations, hunting and cooking and clothing, such a wealth of material that we begin to settle into this land even as Gavir does.
But Gavir moves on from here as well. From his earliest life as a slave he has been interested in, and delighted by, books, and among the Marsh people, "Stories were for women and children. Songs were secrets, sung only at the terrifying sacred rites of initiation. These were not people of the word ... All I had learned from books was wasted among them" (page 415).
A love of reading and books runs through all three volumes of the Western Shore series. Orrec in Gifts and Memer in Voices are also great readers; Memer even visits a secret library in a land where reading is punishable by death. Gavir, though, might be the most bookish of the three: in young adolescence, he tells us seriously, "My life's work, I decided, would be to combine the annals of the City States into one grand history ..." (page 133). In an era where Harry Potter seems never to have done his homework, it's a terrific thing to see such encouragement of reading.
The series is also concerned with power—or rather, the giving up of power. It's an unusual theme in a genre that sometimes seems to be only about military or magical power: getting it, fighting to hold onto it. The inherited gifts in the first volume are grand and terrifying—blinding, setting fires, slow wasting—and yet they seem to work against their possessors rather than for them. Constant feuding has impoverished the people, who keep to themselves and go in fear of their neighbors, and Orrec is so afraid of his inherited gift, the ability of undoing, that he voluntarily blindfolds himself. (At times Gifts reads almost like Le Guin's answer to Jerome Bixby's spooky story "It's a Good Life," about the kid with unlimited powers: having such abilities would be a lot grimmer than you might think. Or, as one of the characters says, "You don't use the gift. It uses you" (page 55).) In Voices, conflicts are resolved by negotiation and storytelling rather than strength, magical or otherwise.
And in Powers, too, Gavir's gift of "remembering" does him little good: he sees soldiers attacking the city and setting it on fire, but because he has no idea when these events will happen he is unable to warn anyone. Far more important to him is learning and freedom. In the end, Orrec and Memer and Gavir are able to find their places in the world. It's another encouraging lesson for adolescents who actually like reading and learning things—hang in there, it does get better.