Ursula K. LeGuin, Gifts (Harcourt, 2004)
The uplands of the Carrantages are a place of small holdings devoted to sheep herding, cattle, hunting, and farming, inhabited by families who all possess what they call "gifts." The Barre gift is calling, mostly used to call game to the hunt; the Gere gift is twisting -- an arm, a leg, a back. The Caspro gift is undoing, which is a fearsome gift indeed. The Highlanders live in mutual suspicion, wary of each other and their gifts.
Orrec Caspro is sixteen and goes blindfolded. He has the Caspro gift, a wild gift that he cannot control. He is feared, and his family is safe because of it, for the time being. Gry Barre, his lifelong friend, has the Barre gift, but she will not use it to call to the hunt: she prefers to use it to train horses and dogs without breaking their spirit. Gifts is Ursula K. LeGuin's story of Orrec and Gry and how they learn to deal with their birthrights, and to find gifts that they might not have been looking for.
LeGuin certainly needs no introduction from me, save to note that I have been an enthusiastic reader of her fantasy and science fiction for years. Aside from adult classics such as The Earthsea Cycle, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, she is also a highly regarded author of books for young adults and children.
I find myself sometimes genuinely shocked at the books being written and published for children and teenagers in recent years, but then, I grew up in perhaps less trying times, with the likes of Heinlein's Red Planet and The Rolling Stones as my fallbacks. In the past couple of years I've read science fiction and fantasy for juveniles and young adults that deal with divorce, dysfunctional families, spouse abuse, attempted suicide, not to mention the complete collapse of human civilization. Of course, thinking back, by my late teens I was chomping my way though Thomas Pynchon and Henry Miller, so perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised at what kids are reading. I'm just somewhat taken aback at the overtness of it all.
All of which is just my way of leading up to the fact that Gifts is more than a little grim. It is not a book that's heavy on action -- those scenes are compressed and have an abrupt finality that leaves little room for elaboration. Most of the book just seems to build tension, waiting for the other shoe to drop: the potential for a small but devastating conflict is presented early, but nothing happens for a long, long time. There is, at least, a victory, although the victory is sour and the price is much too high.
Aside from his friendship with Gry, Orrec's chief relationships, those with his parents, present a startling contrast. Canoc is not a brutal man, but he's not exactly your model post-feminist father, either. He can be rough and moody, perhaps because he carries a secret that means life or death for his people. He rules a domain that is under constant threat, and he is responsible for the well-being of its inhabitants, most of whom are relatives -- the gifts run in lineages, and so families tend to stay close. Orrec's mother, Melle Aulitta, is a lowlander, prize of a raid by Canoc as a young man -- a willing prize, at that -- and brings with her the poetry and stories of the south. Between them, they teach Orrec the intricacies of politics and the wonders of the wider world.
The lessons in the book are obvious: Orrec must learn to control his gift, and is led to discover gifts that he didn't realize he had -- not supernatural gifts, tuned to destruction, but gifts that are purely his own and rely on no bloodlines and no spells. Gry is a lesson in the appropriate uses of power, and making the decision to use power and not be used by it. They also learn that everything has two sides: gifts that are used for destruction may also be used for creation, and their little corner of the world is not the only corner of the world.
I'm not going to tell you what I think of this book because I don't know what I think of this book. LeGuin is a subtle and powerful writer, and that, to be sure, comes through in full measure. Her own gift for storytelling is here, and after a rocky start I did find myself drawn into the story. I just don't know if I liked it.
[Robert M. Tilendis]