9 Rated Books Book Reviews Old School Wednesdays

Old School Wednesdays: Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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Today, it’s Ana turn with her first ever Ursula Le Guin book!

Title: Gifts

Author: Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Gifts US Gifts

Publisher: Harcourt / Orion Children’s Books
Publication date: First published in 2004
Paperback: 186 pages

Scattered among poor, desolate farms, the clans of the Uplands possess gifts. Wondrous gifts: the ability–with a glance, a gesture, a word–to summon animals, bring forth fire, move the land. Fearsome gifts: They can twist a limb, chain a mind, inflict a wasting illness. The Uplanders live in constant fear that one family might unleash its gift against another. Two young people, friends since childhood, decide not to use their gifts. One, a girl, refuses to bring animals to their death in the hunt. The other, a boy, wears a blindfold lest his eyes and his anger kill.

In this beautifully crafted story, Ursula K. Le Guin writes of the proud cruelty of power, of how hard it is to grow up, and of how much harder still it is to find, in the world’s darkness, gifts of light.

Standalone or series: First in the Annals of the Western Shore series but can be read as a standalone novel

How did I get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Print Book

Why did I read this book: Because The Other Ana told me to. And I had to start somewhere with Le Guin’s books!


“To see that your life is a story while you’re in the middle of living it may be a help to living it well.”

Kicking myself up for not reading this – or any other Ursula Le Guin – sooner, I come to writing this review with a newly found appreciation for reading in general (because OMG, a lot of my recent reads have been such huge disappointments) and a keen desire, nay, a need so powerful to read ALL THE BOOKS as long as ALL THE BOOKS are as good as this one (which they will not be, but this optimistic need is there, and the need was simply not there for a while). In a way this is less of a review and more of a regurgitation of my feels about Gifts and about what most of you probably already know, if not about this book, at the very least about the author. If not, if you are like me and have not read a Le Guin before, this is definitely a good place to start because this is not only a great book but one that also made me want to read her entire backlist.

And it’s funny because what I have said so far is a statement to the power of stories and of stories well told like this one and since one of the main themes of Gifts is the power of stories and storytelling, this is all incredibly meta. The entire narrative here is kind of auto-biography of a budding storyteller at a moment when he is still falling in love with books, with reading and with stories. He – Orrec – is telling us his story, and the history of his clan and it is kind of really amazing how good writing can be such a decisive factor when analysing a book because generally speaking under other circumstances (i.e. in the hands of a not so good writer) I’d be right now voicing my protestations about info-dumps and exposition. But the prose in Gifts is so graceful to the point of being almost melodious in a way that really spoke deeply to me. The prose won me over from its opening lines:

He was lost when he came to us, and I fear the silver spoons he stole from us didn’t save him when he ran away and went up into the high domains. Yet in the end the lost man, the runaway man was our guide.

Orrec grows up hearing tales from his mother and learning how to read them. In them he finds succour in his greatest time of need, when loss, death and grief seem to be all he has to live for. The stories shapes him until he learns how to shape them. And it’s interesting how stories and history intertwine and how tradition and belief are learned things (hello there, Nation). I chose to speak about this thread about storytelling first but Gifts is also a story about the limits of power, the weight of expectations and the pull of family and tradition.

Orrec, is a young man who lives in the Uplands where different clans have varied and fearsome gifts: the ability to summon animals during a hunt, to cast a spell, to make others sick. The most fearsome gift of them all is the gift of undoing and that’s the gift Orrec’s clan traditionally has and the one he is expected to develop. Since Orrec was a young child, his father has told him stories of powerful members of his clan who – with a glance, a hand gesture and a word – can undo living things. Orrec grows up both fearing and hoping his gift will show eventually. It’s not until late that his gift finally shows, only to come boundless and wild. Orrec and his father decide the best way to move forward is to blindfold Orrec – without his sight, he cannot cast his undoing. For the next few years, Orrec lives in a self-imposed darkness in an attempt to control his power. In the meantime, his best friend (and intended wife) Gry, is equally struggling with her own gift and its limitations. And it’s the way that these clans as well as Orrec’s family specifically deal with these gifts (that are more like curses, really, if you think of it) and the power that comes with it that informs most of the story.

And it’s ironic because even with all these gifts and the effective real power it comes with them, life in the Uplands is still harsh, complicated and desolate because the clans live in chequered fear that those gits will be unleashed against each other. Politics, social mores and economics are built on the strengths of these gifts. It’s also interesting to note the choice of naming when addressing them too – all the more important when put in context. Therefore we talk about “gifts”, “undoing”, “calling”, “twisting” which all have possible positive connotations if taken out of the context they actually happen.

And both Orrec and Gry find themselves questioning and confronting the ideas and the gifts in a way that is painful and hopeful and really, really brilliant. And I am just surprised I guess because I never see this series listed on any collection/list/breakdown/best-of YA Fantasy and I wonder why this is. And please excuse me for these meandering thoughts but it’s been a while since I have been so enamoured by a book that I let myself the freedom to simply enjoy writing about it.

Notable quotes/parts:

He was lost when he came to us, and I fear the silver spoons he stole from us didn’t save him when he ran away and went up into the high domains. Yet in the end the lost man, the runaway man was our guide.

Gry called him the runaway man. When he first came, she was sure he’d done some terrible thing, a murder or a betrayal, and was escaping vengeance. What else would bring a Lowlander here, among us?

“Ignorance,” I said. “He knows nothing of us. He’s not afraid of us.”

“He said people down there warned him not to come up among the witches.”

“But he knows nothing about the gifts,” I said. “It’s all just talk, to him. Legends, lies…”

We were both right, no doubt. Certainly Emmon was running away, if only from a well-earned reputation for thievery, or from boredom; he was as restless, as fearless and inquisitive and inconsequential as a hound puppy, trotting wherever his nose led him. Recalling the accent and turns of speech he had, I know now that he came from far in the south, farther than Algalanda, where tales of the Uplands were just that-tales: old rumors of the distant northland, where wicked witchfolk lived in icy mountains and did impossible things.

If he’d believed what they told him down in Danner, he’d never have come up to Caspromant. If he’d believed us, he never would have gone on higher in the mountains. He loved to hear stories, so he listened to ours, but he didn’t believe them. He was a city man, he’d had some education, he’d travelled the length of the Lowlands. He knew the world. Who were we, me and Gry? What did we know, a blind boy and a grim girl, sixteen years old, stuck in the superstition and squalor of the desolate hill farms that we so grandly called our domains? He led us on, in his lazy kindness, to talk about the great powers we had, but while we talked he was seeing the bare, hard way we lived, the cruel poverty, the cripples and backward people of the farms, seeing our ignorance of everything outside these dark hills, and saying to himself, Oh yes, what great powers they have, poor brats!

Gry and I feared that when he left us he went to Geremant. It is hard to think he may still be there, alive but a slave, with legs twisted like corkscrews, or his face made monstrous for Erroy’s amusement, or his eyes truly blinded, as mine were not. For Erroy wouldn’t have suffered his careless airs, his insolence, for an hour.

I took some pains to keep him away from my father when his tongue was flapping, but only because Canoc’s patience was short and his mood dark, not because I feared he’d ever use his gift without good cause. In any case he paid little heed to Emmon or anyone else. Since my mother’s death his mind was all given to grief and rage and rancor. He huddled over his pain, his longing for vengeance. Gry, who knew all the nests and eyries for miles around, once saw a carrion eagle brooding his pair of silvery, grotesque eaglets in a nest up on the Sheer, after a shepherd killed the mother bird who hunted for them both. So my father brooded and starved.

To Gry and me, Emmon was a treasure, a bright creature come into our gloom. He fed our hunger. For we were starving too.

Rating: 9 – Damn Near Perfect

Reading Next: The Daughter Star by Susan Jane Bigelow

Buy the Books:

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Ebook available for kindle US, nook

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  • Ana @ things mean a lot
    June 12, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Wheeeeeeeeeeee 😀

    No, not All The Books are this good, but I dare say that the rest of this trilogy gets EVEN BETTER (and it deals with themes which I know are close to your heart). I can’t wait for you to read onwards.

  • Tadi
    June 12, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Lovely blog. Please follow mine, it’s new: readandlovebooks.blogspot.com

  • Liz Bourke
    June 12, 2013 at 8:57 am

    I tell you now that Voices is even better. And you should read it, do.

  • Laura
    June 12, 2013 at 9:37 am

    Okay, this is super helpful, because I have yet to read any Le Guin. Thanks so much for giving me a place to start! This sounds really intriguing. 🙂

  • charlotte
    June 12, 2013 at 9:42 am

    I am SO JEALOUS of you having all of Le Guin before you. It is true that some of her books work less well for me than others, but you have some utterly, mindblowingly wonderful books to look forward to! The Dispossesed. The Left Hand of Darkness. Four Ways to Forgiveness. The Earthsea books. Her collections of short stories, which are gems. etc etc etc.

  • Linda W
    June 12, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    Yay! Now you have her Earthsea series to look forward to!!

  • Juan Pazos
    June 12, 2013 at 6:01 pm

    Oh Le Guin my Le Guin! Just so…. just… anghf…. haven’t got the words to describe what I feel….

  • Maureen E
    June 12, 2013 at 6:56 pm

    I can’t take LeGuin’s SF myself, but ADORE her fantasy. And the Gifts trilogy is just amazing.

  • Rachael
    June 12, 2013 at 8:03 pm

    And just to be a ginormous nerd, her essays are pretty great too and cover a wide range of subjects, including her writing.

  • Amanda @ Late Nights with Good Books
    June 14, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    Although I consider myself a huge fantasy fan, Le Guin is one fantasy author I’ve also never read before. This book sounds wonderful and intelligent and thought-provoking and it is being added to my TBR. My first encounter with Le Guin’s work will be Lavinia since I’m reading retellings of The Aeneid, so I hope reading that is as positive an experience for me as reading Gifts was for you!

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