Gifts: Book 1 of the Annals of the Western Shore

By Ursula K. Le Guin
HMH Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-0152051242
Paperback, 304 pages. © 2006

In the Uplands, where families pass on Gifts through their bloodlines, Houses are known by what their heirs can do. Some can move heavy objects without touching them. Even buildings. Even hills. Others can strike blindness or take away the power of speech. Women in Gry’s family carry the Calling, a useful gift that helps to soothe livestock or brings animals out of hiding for the hunt. The power of Orrec’s lineage is the Unmaking, a terrible gift that destroys with a look, a gesture, a sigh.

The strongest Houses are those whose brantors hold the most useful powers—defense, control, manipulation. Orrec’s father is among the best known, for though he is fair, who would not fear a man who can strike them down in an instant? Orrec has begun to think he has no gift, that the Unmaking has skipped his blood. Until he lost his temper with the dog. Until his father almost stepped on an asp. Until the ash tree. Now he must ask himself which is worse: no gift at all? or a wild gift he cannot control?

Gifts is the first book in Ursula Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore trilogy. While there are a few action-packed scenes, I love that most of the story is character-driven. Chapter one opens in the middle of the tale, and then goes back to bring the reader up to the present, then forward to the last page. The author leads us through Orrec’s life, through his culture and the politics of his era, all of which we see through Orrec’s eyes. The interesting thing is that as Orrec ages, so does his perspective. In the early parts of the book, he is a young boy, seeing with the eyes and mind of youth. As the tale progresses, his view widens to see more astutely. His mind makes connections he could not conceive before.

But Le Guin adds a layer of perception I did not expect, one I don’t think I’ve seen used in this way before. After Orrec binds his eyes, he—and thus the reader—must experience his world with his ears, his nose, his tongue, his fingers. His lament for the loss of vision is soon replaced by familiarity with his other senses. The reactions of the other characters to his choice show Orrec’s strength, as well as his petulance, for who wouldn’t be a little irked about never seeing another sunset when all he would need to do is remove the blindfold? Though he longs to see his friend Gry, or his new dog, or his mother’s face, he refuses to look for fear he will do them harm.

A subtle YA fantasy with depth and strong characters, this is a quiet tale that builds to a surprise ending I did not see coming. Even though Le Guin left plain clues, I missed the key to the story’s larger truth. I won’t spoil it for you here, but I wonder if you will see it before I did. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it through, despite a very busy schedule, in just a few days. Gifts stands alone, but it’s clear there is more to come. I’ll be reviewing the next book in the series as soon as I can.