by Ursula K. Le Guin
Recommended Ages: 13+
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In the third book of the “Annals of the Western Shore,” the author of A Wizard of Earthsea completes what appears to be a fantasy trilogy for young adults. I hope that appearances are deceiving in this case. I hope this series will continue beyond this book!
In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, Diana Wynne Jones wrote that a map in the foreleaves is an essential part of a fantasy novel. The Western Shore books are no exception to this rule. But from the beginning, the map of the Western Shore has been far more expansive than the territory covered by the story. This book’s introductory map zooms in on a smaller area, and its narrator fills in more of the details of it by traveling around. And so the dots on the map become more than so many funny-sounding names. They become places with an interesting history, a distinctive culture, a deep background of religion and literature, and snaps of dramatic tension that propel young Gavir forward on his pilgrimage. They become real to the reader’s imagination, as only a country created by a master of world-building fantasy can be.
Gavir grows up with no memory of the Marsh country he and his older sister Sallo came from. He was only a baby when they were taken as slaves and bought by the noble house of Arcamand in the city-state of Etra. Slavery at Arcamand isn’t too harsh. Sallo and Gavir are educated alongside the children of the household. When Sallo comes of age, she is to be given to the family’s older son as a concubine—which, given that she and Yaven love each other, could be far worse. Gavir is being groomed to succeed Everra the schoolmaster. With his gifted memory, Gavir soaks up everything he reads and hears: history, philosophy, poetry. Now and then, Gavir even remembers things that haven’t happened yet—a power of the Marsh people that Sallo urges him to keep secret. All seems to be going well, except for a war that decimates the city, and a bitterly personal feud with Yaven’s brutral younger brother and his equally nasty bodyguard.
But then something terrible happens that Gavir did not foresee in time. Out of his mind with grief, he sets of on a journey of forgetfulness and remembering. He forgets that his pocket is full of money and nearly starves to death. He even forgets, for a while, that he is a runaway slave—a feat made easier by the fact that his masters think him dead. He spends a summer recovering his strength in the den of a hermit. He survives the winter by joining a band of outlaws in the forest. He runs away from them and joins an even bigger and more ambitious band of outlaws, whose leader claims to be plotting a revolution based on the principles of liberty. He flees from one form of tyranny and slavery to another, discovering along the way where he came from and which of his powers will shape his life. He visits strange cultures. He finds peace, joy, grief, and danger in more than one place. And when he finally realizes where he must go to be free, he must make the journey carrying a vulnerable child while his deadliest enemy follows close behind.
What links this book to the first two in the series, besides dots on a map? Some of the poetry that inspires Gav on his journey is by authors we have heard of and met before, most notably Orrec Caspro (see Gifts). The gods and ancestral spirits reverenced amid the city-states are the same as, or similar to, those worshiped in Ansul (see Visions). And there is more as well, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. On its own, however, this book reads like the memoirs of a man who underwent a heartbreaking odyssey in a world so convincingly real that any notion it never existed will seem to you like fantasy. The snippets of poetry and history embedded in this book are both beautiful and authentically human. And the landscape in which Gav moves exists so vividly in the mind’s eye that its map becomes more than a page: it becomes a world. I have yet to see Ursula Le Guin accomplish less than this, even in a book half the length of this one; and this book is only what in most authors’ hands would be average length. Not a tedious page in it, Powers powers through a landscape rich in thought-provoking ideas, deeply felt emotions, and well-paced suspense leading to a swift and satisfying coda. What more can we ask? I know: a fourth book!