Gifts -- Ursula K. Le Guin
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. It's unwise, though, to think you know how it's going to go, or how it's going to end. That's to be known only when it's over.
And even when it's over, even when it's somebody else's life, somebody who lived a hundred years ago, whose story I've heard told time and again, while I'm hearing it I hope and fear as if I didn't know how it would end; and so I live the story and it lives in me. That's as good a way as I know to outwit death.
I've been meaning to read this since it came out three years ago. Now that it has two sequels (the most recent of which was recently nominated* for a Cybil), I figured it was probably about time.
The people of the Uplands are mostly poor farmers. The environment is a harsh one, food supplies are often low, and at best, the powerful families are suspicious of each other.
And the powerful families aren't just powerful due to land or wealth—they have gifts. Abilities. Members of one family can, just with a look and some chanting, cause others to waste away. Another can cause blindness, another can slit a throat from afar.
Orrec of Caspromant is the youngest in a long, powerful line of men. Their gift is the undoing. With a glance, a gesture and a breathed word, their power can untie a knot or unmake a life. It turns out that Orrec's gift is a very powerful one—and he doesn't know if he wants it.
Like a lot of Le Guin's other books, Gifts drops the reader right into a different world and a different culture, with not a lot of explanation. You have to pay attention**. Though there are raiding parties and battles, this is not an action-packed adventure novel. It's about Orrec coming to terms with his power, his father and his heritage, with his best friend and with himself. It's a coming-of-age story set in another world.
And the world is (not surprisingly, as this is Le Guin we're talking about) well-drawn and complex. The people in it have their own politics and religion and customs and superstitions and prejudices. I got so involved that whenever I set the book down, I needed a few minutes to shake it off and resurface.
It won't be for everyone—I can't see it being much of a hit with reluctant readers—but I loved it. It's one I know I'll re-read, and I looking forward to reading the next two.
*Haven't nominated your 2007 favorites yet? Get to it!
**A lot of fantasy novels feature maps, necessary or not—one actually would have been helpful here. There are so many clans with so many different gifts that I had a hard time keeping track of everyone at first.