Ursula K. Le Guin
Powers Cover

Powers -- Is this it?

Tar Daddoo

[This is the third of a trilogy of books. The first is Gifts, which I have reviewed here. The second is Voices, which I have reviewed here. Definitely start with Gifts.]

What is the Fantasy premise?

In Powers, Ursula Le Guin provides another story about the Western Shore. In this book, we focus on Gavir, a young boy who has the ability to foresee the future.

Where does the Fantasy premise come from and what governs its use?

As with the other Western Shore books, there is little indication of where the fantastic powers come from. Also, since Gavir's powers are seldom used, we do not really know how powerful they are or what constrains their use. Eventually, later in the book, we do learn a bit more from people who offer guidance.

Is the impact of the premise on an individual explored?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Gavir's power is how little he is able to use it. He refers to it as "remembering" the future, which is an interesting description of how such a power might be perceived. Besides pointing out the potential for confusing foretelling with simple memories, it implies a certain helplessness with respect to the foretold future. Indeed, while Gavir is young he has no ability to control when he will perceive the future, what he will perceive, or even how frequently he will perceive the future. He is not altogether certain when a foretold event is likely to occur. He comes to rely far more on his skill at remembering the books he has read and the things he has learned in the past.

Is the impact of the premise on society explored?

Gavir travels through many societies, but he seldom reveals his talent to anyone. Thus, for the most part, these societies are not affected by Gavir's gift. Eventually, he does come to a society that is familiar with his talent and learns something of what it takes to nurture his skill. This society is the closest glimpse we get of how the gift of foretelling might influence a culture.

How well written is the story?

As always, Ursula Le Guin is a great storyteller whose stories are easy to read.

I will admit to some disappointment. As the third of what I assume is a trilogy, I expected the various threads woven in all three books to come together more than they did. I also thought, that there might be more scenes in which the fantastical gifts and powers played a significant role.

Powers is a story about Gavir alone. It is a coming of age story, in that Gavir starts very young with few responsibilities and little understanding of how the world works. By the end he has a deeper understanding and greater responsibility. It is also an odyssey, in that Gavir travels through strange lands, meeting strange people as he strives to find some place he can call home. It is a compelling story, but it is his story; the characters from the earlier books do not play a significant role. (Powers does rely a little on the earlier stories, so definitely read them first.)

As in the earlier books, Le Guin has once again chosen to deemphasize the fantastic. Gavir's entire story could have been told without having him possess any fantastic abilities. Once again, Le Guin appears to be saying that the familiar talents are more reliable and powerful than the fantastic ones. While I appreciate the message, I still feel like I signed up for a fantasy that I am not really getting.

Can I recommend the book?

If you understand that these stories are light on fantasy and remain interested, definitely read the whole Western Shore trilogy. Le Guin remains a master storyteller, painting worlds, characters, and events that we long to understand better.

If, however, you want to be immersed in the fantastic, I fear you will find these stories tame. Wait until the urge for fantasy passes and pick up these books as simple stories about a distant land. Encountered this way, they will delight rather than disappoint.

Having said all that, perhaps my opinion is best expressed by my desire to read the fourth book, I have no idea whether Le Guin even plans to write a fourth book, but I long to read it. I still want to see the threads pulled together and the gifts, voices, and powers all working in concert.

Tar Daddoo