by Ursula LeGuin
Ok, I tried to stick to the 'Library Books Only' diet, but couldn't resist that stack of colorful, glossy books with such wonderfully tempting titles. Ah well, what can I say? I'm weak-willed like that.
Quick Synopsis: The people of the Uplands live a stark and rough existence that always borders on starvation and inter-clan warfare. Their only defense against neighboring clans and their only bargaining tool in forming alliances are the mysterious and fearsome Gifts. The Gift can be the ability to cut like a knife with only a glance, to destroy a hillside of vegetation with a single gesture, to call animals to the hunt with a thought. These hereditary powers are guarded jealously and are carefully passed down from father to son and mother to daughter. This is the way it has always been, but two children who are coming into their power begin to question whether these Gifts could be used for a greater good, rather than as mere tools in the ongoing struggle to survive.
Ursula LeGuin's strong point has always been her ability to use masterful storytelling as a vehicle for social commentary, forcing her readers to examine their own beliefs and worldviews. Again and again, her books and short stories raise probing questions about why things are the way they are. Though it might not be quite on par with Left Hand of Darkness or The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (short story), Gifts follows in this same tradition. Its message is familiar, though an important one for teen-people: we don't often get to choose the tools we are given, but we do get to choose how we use them.
The greatest strength in Gifts is its characters. Orrec, our main character and hero, is every bit the teenage boy teetering between childhood and adult life. He is frightened by his powers, rebellious toward his father and inheritance, and full of fiery passion--in short, a teenage girl's dreamboat. His best friend, Gry, has an equally rich character--deeply soulful and spirited. Their conversations and the dialogue between other characters in the book are natural and well-paced. LeGuin's setting in a remote, bitter landscape and descriptions of the Uplander people draw the reader even further into the world of Upland
While I firmly believe that the hallmark of a great work of writing is strong, desire-driven characters, the brilliant characters still need a plot in which to do their thing. And this is where LeGuin falls short. The book opens promisingly enough with a mid-winter, fire-side discussion between Orrec, Gry, and a mysterious stranger from the even more mysterious Lowlands. I was gleefully anticipating a dangerous hero-quest of some sort to ensue. Unfortunately, the story very quickly slides back in time to several months earlier when Orrec's gift is first awakening. We don't return to the fireside chat until the very end of the book, at which point we find out that the mysterious stranger in fact has no real bearing on the book at all and is more or less a random passerby. In my mind, this violates one of the cardinal rules of writing: If you put a dagger on the mantle in Scene 1, there better be murder by Act 2. LeGuin set the stage as if the stranger was going to have meaning in the story, but ultimately he was an unnecessary character who did not add to the book. In writing, everything should have meaning, or in all honesty, it should be cut from the manuscript. What's cardinal rule #2, 'o my fellow writers? That's right: kill your darlings.
There are some jumps and starts of minor plots throughout the rest of the book--Orrec's struggle with his father, a possible alliance with a dangerous neighbor, murder via covert use of the Gift. But this coming of age story lacks a real pivotal plot around which to make the transformation believable, and ultimately, it feels forced. The book still 'works' and is carried along by the fact that LeGuin is a brilliant storyteller with a fresh perspective on a traditional theme in young adult literature. Her ability to completely enthrall her audience with language that transports you right into the story and characters that feel like friends outweighs the slipshod crafting of the plot.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006