Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Ursula Le Guin is a master of the bildungsroman. A Wizard of Earthea, The Farthest Shore, Malafrena, and several of her other books are among the finest coming of age novels in American literature. There are few authors capable of elucidating the challenges of personal discovery the way that Le Guin does and Powers, the third entry in the Annals of the Western Shore trilogy, is no exception.
Despite my boundless love for Le Guin’s works, I was late to the Annals of the Western Shore series due primarily to – and yes this is awfully clichéd of me – their fairly atrocious cover art. There’s no other way to put it: I judged these books by their covers, which was just as stupid as it sounds (although, in my defense, look at that cover). But we’re talking about Le Guin here, for God’s sake! The first two entries in the series, Gifts and Voices are strong in their own right, but it’s the series’ final installment, Powers, that really makes an investment in the Annals of the Western Shore worthwhile.
Set in a rich and fully realized world (Le Guin is a master world-creator, too), the Annals of the Western Shore, and more specifically Powers, generate an interesting discussion on cultural history and the role of the individual within a social establishment. Admitting that that sounds like a rather dull textbook entry, the books themselves are very engaging and character-driven.
Though those social issues are thematically important, Le Guin’s expertise is such that any discussion of societal expectation is tangential to the personal problems confronting each book’s characters. Case in point: the adventures of Gav, Powers‘ protagonist, as he struggles to escape slavery and find meaning in his life, challenge you to think about your own freedom, what it means and what you might be willing to sacrifice to have it.
More than just social commentary, Powers is a beautiful piece of fiction, one of Le Guin’s best in years. The prose is clear and precise and Le Guin communicates the emotional states of her characters with an honesty that is alternately heartbreaking and life-affirming. Even when you know what’s coming, Le Guin’s writing makes the experience extremely worthwhile. She can show her hand, saying “this will happen” and because of her skill in the telling, the happening itself loses none of its potency. For example, early in the story the narrator acknowledges that Gav will survive the events of the story, and yet Le Guin’s prose ensures that the mystery of the tale remains. You may know that Gav will survive, but the questions of how, and at what cost, are always urgent.
Le Guin is rightly honored as a master of her craft. She is beloved by the writing community, acknowledged as maybe the greatest living writer of genre fiction. For my part, much of what I know and believe about writing stems from my love of her work. All that admiration is well deserved. Powers is yet another example of why.