Orrec is the son of the Brantor of Caspromant; Gry the daughter of the Brantors of Barre and Rodd. They have grown up together in neighbouring domains, running half-wild across the Uplands. The people of the domains are like their land: harsh and fierce and prideful; ever at war with their neighbours, raiding cattle, capturing serfs, enlarging their holdings. It is only the gifts that keep a fragile peace. The gifts are powers: the Barres can call animals. The women of Cordemant can blind or make deaf, or take away speech. Brantor Ogge of Drummant has the gift of slow wasting. But the Caspro gift is both the best and worst: it is the gift of undoing. Gry's gift runs true, but she will not use it to call animals for the hunt. Orrec too has a problem, for his gift of undoing is wild: he cannot control it - and that is the most dangerous gift of all.
Ursula Le Guin's Gifts is the first book in a new fantasy series which looks to be as gripping and page-turning as the Earthsea series has been. Orrec and Gry are sympathetic characters - and very believable. I really felt for both Gry in her dislike of calling animals to be killed by hunters and for Orrec in trying to discover how to control his gift. Like some of her earlier books, Gifts is about a slave-owning society obsessed with purity of lineage. "There are so many cultures that do that - especially when they think something special runs in the blood," she says.
There was an interesting interview with Le Guin in the Guardian on Saturday, which I recommend. Of fantasy she says:
"Writing fantasy isn't writing for children, but it erases the distinctions; it's inherently a crossover genre," she says. Much of fantasy writing, she adds, is "about power - just look at Tolkien. It's a means to examine what it does to the person who has it, and to others."
The interview reports that
Le Guin found much of C S Lewis "simply Christian apologia, full of hatred and contempt for people who didn't agree. The division into good and evil was different from Tolkien, where evil beings are only a metaphor for the evil in our lives; he never casts people into the outer darkness as Lewis enjoyed doing." Though fantasy is often miscast as escapist, for Le Guin, it is the natural language of the "spiritual journey and the struggles of good and evil in the soul". It begins to resemble dream, she says, "and the symbols seem to be near universal and accessible to all. They're the same through the ages: we read the Epic of Gilgamesh and get it. The symbolic language is basic but not primitive or childish; it's a deep grammar of understanding."
Between reading Gifts this week, and The Wind's Twelve Quarters last week, not to mention the Guardian interview, I've now conceived a plan to read as many of Le Guin's novels as possible (I'm already a fan of the Earthsea books) once "D-Day" has passed... (In the meantime I've become hooked on Anthony Horowitz's 'Alex Rider' series which is causing me the same kind of excitment that the Harry Potter books caused six years ago ! More on this tomorrow !)