It’s natural as writers get on in years to revisit themes and ideas from their earlier works, and perhaps explore them with greater depth or from a different point of view. The Annals of the Western Shore, published between 2005 and 2007, does not cover new ground for Ursula K. Le Guin, but it doesn’t really need to. Often, the sf community seems ignorant of Le Guin’s more recent novels despite her steady improvement as a writer and storyteller (Changing Planes is one of my favourites, though it’s not so much a novel as an imaginative ethnographic treatise). Her early contributions in the field were so overwhelmingly influential they tend to overshadow all else. On a sentence level, Le Guin’s writing is surer now than it was in The Left Hand of Darkness, and her deftness with language immediately engaged me with this newer trilogy.
The Annals of the Western Shore is only a trilogy in the loosest sense, however. You can read each individual volume independent of the others; they take place in the same world and in vaguely the same rough span of time, but each has a different narrator and takes place in a different part of the imagined Western Shore. The only recurring characters are Orrec Caspro and his wife Gry, though their centrality in each narrative diminishes as the series goes on. The Western Shore is richly-imagined and, as in the Earthsea cycle, much of the world’s “realness” (for lack of a better term) lies in Le Guin’s talent for coining made-up words that sound natural and her keen understanding of how cultures work.
Gifts focuses on the boyhood of Orrec Caspro, apparently born with the power of his clan to unmake, and his growth into a poet. The writing is beautiful, the story itself gentle and focused on responsibility. In many ways, it recalls the early chapters of A Wizard of Earthsea on Gont, thanks to the cold and unforgiving setting in the Uplands, though in style it hews closer to Tehanu. It’s a pleasant enough read, but lacks the more solid emotional impact of the later books.
Voices centres on knowledge, storytelling, and, most importantly, reading. The narrator here is a teenage girl named Memer, born in the city of Ansul. Seventeen years prior, the Alds conquered the city in a holy war. Their religion forbids the capture of words, and thus they destroy all the books they can find and stamp out learning in a city once famous for its libraries. Some conceits from Earthsea appear again—the Alds resemble the Kargads down to their desert origin and the white skin and blond hair that separates them from the predominately dark-skinned inhabitants of the Western Shore, though Le Guin does a better job of humanizing these foes in a manner that was lacking in Earthsea. While Voices is a tale of rebellion, it does not demonize the occupiers despite their brutality and their wilful ignorance, and it ends on a thoughtful note of reconciliation rather than revenge. I enjoyed it a great deal.
However, Powers has affected me the most. It comes back to a theme expressed in Le Guin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—that a society built on principles of injustice cannot be just and moral, no matter how well-intentioned its individual members might be.
Honor can exist anywhere, love can exist anywhere, but justice can exist only among people who found their relationships upon it. (294)
The narrator Gavir begins as a slave in the city-state of Etra, and the family who owns him treats comparatively well. He lives a life of comfort where he trains to become a teacher for the family’s children. He even comes to love them, and certain members of the owning family love him as well. Yet still we must watch helplessly as others in the family perpetrate horrible crimes against Gavir’s fellow slaves and face no punishment for it. There are several moments in the book where I felt truly anxious about what was happening to Gavir in a way I haven’t been anxious about characters for many years. Le Guin does not provide the catharsis of vengeance against these injustices, either, and it demonstrates her point quite nicely—that in areas with deeply-entrenched imbalances of power, there’s simply nothing the weakest can do even if they elicit the sympathy of the strongest if they do not question the fundamental assumptions of the society itself. Once outside the city-state, Gavir encounters other societies that proclaim freedom yet are also built on arbitrary hierarchies. He at first trusts in these societies just as strongly as he had in Etra’s, but soon realizes they are no different. Like the lack of catharsis, there is also a lack of utopia, and a conviction that life can be and is deeply unfair, both curious features of this book alone in the trilogy. Voices ended on a positive note of change for the entirety of Ansul, but Powers is a very personal story about the discoveries and changes within an individual. Unlike its title, it mainly concerns the plight of the powerless. Conversely, in keeping with that title, it’s a powerful and deeply moving novel, and one that I think deserves more recognition.
The Chronicles of the Western Shore comes from an author at the top of her craft. They have been marketed as YA, but don’t let the covers fool you. These are novels everyone can enjoy.