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Powers by Ursula LeGuin

01/11/2010. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

Buy Powers (Annals Of The Western Shore book 3) in the USA - or Buy Powers (Annals Of The Western Shore book 3) in the UK

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pub: Powers (Annals Of The Western Shore book 3) by Ursula LeGuin. Orion Children's. 396 page paperback. Price: GBP 6.99 (UK), ISBN: 978-1-84255-631-3.

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‘Powers’ is the final volume in Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Annals Of The Western Shore’ fantasy trilogy. It won the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novel, a particularly notable achievement for a book aimed at a young adult audience, given that there is a separate award for YA novels. I read an extract from the book in ‘Nebula Awards Showcase 2010’ which I reviewed here last month and that led me to seek out ‘Powers’ to read in full. I have to say that I was not disappointed.

‘Powers’ follows the fate of Gavir, a young boy who becomes a domestic slave to a wealthy family after being abducted from his home village as a boy. Gavir has two distinct powers. The first is that he occasionally sees visions of the future. Since many people are scared by such foresight, this power is a potential danger to Gavir. His sister, Sallo, sensibly advises him to keep any such visions to himself. His second power is more prosaic but also more immediately useful. He can memorise any text, long or short, on a single reading, making him a gifted storyteller.

Gavir is put to work helping the family’s teacher, also a slave, to educate the children of the household, free-born and slave alike. Gavir enjoys this role and his photographic memory makes him very good at it. Unfortunately, this very facility is also the cause of his first exile. One of the family’s free-born son’s takes a dislike to Gavir’s erudition and when this eventually turns to hatred, the son takes his revenge in the cruellest way possible, by raping and murdering Sallo. Gavir is reminded that he is just a slave when his sister’s death is explained away as nothing more than an unfortunate accident. The family he has grown to love and trust betray him, compounding the treachery by offering him blood money to buy his silence. Unable to accept what has happened, Gavir runs away from his masters and his home immediately after Sallo’s funeral.

After some time spent wandering aimlessly in the countryside, Gavir is rescued from his depression by a group of escaped slaves. He ends up joining a large community of such people who live deep in the forest in a seemingly idyllic democracy. Once again, his perfect powers of recall provide him with a living as the community’s main storyteller, recounting famous legends and histories every evening after dinner. He builds a close relationship with the community’s benevolent dictator, Barna, and seems to have found a home for himself again, this time as a free man. However, his happiness is short-lived. A momentary misunderstanding between Barna and himself proves disastrous and Gavir has to run away for the second time.

After two unsuccessful attempts to live on other people’s terms, Gavir decides to travel to the rural village of his birth, to see if he has a family to return to. When he gets there, nobody initially seems to want to know him. Eventually, he finds an aunt who tells him that his mother is dead, killed in the raid that took him and his sister into captivity. However, the aunt also reluctantly reveals that she shares his power of prophecy and offers him a choice. He can stay in the village and learn to become their next seer, putting his first and most dangerous power to use for the good of his people or he can ignore that power and become an ordinary fisherman. Since this is the only other skill he has that is of any value to a village where storytelling is frowned upon, Gavir is, at last, faced with making his own decision about the future. Yet it turns out to be much more complicated than he would have thought, as his previous lives all start to catch up with him in short order.

Like so many of LeGuin’s previous books, ‘Powers’ is a novel which explores its subject matter with great insight and sensitivity. I got to know Gavir well over the course of the story and found the experience both enjoyable and thought-provoking. LeGuin shows us what it feels like to be a slave, both during the happier times when Gavir’s work is stimulating and the terrible moments when it becomes clear that a slave ultimately has no rights. The story unfolds naturally, without any hint of lecturing and it would be difficult not to be deeply touched by Gavir’s honesty and resilience in the face of repeated disasters.

There is very little to object to in this novel. If I had to find one fault, it would be that the narrative felt, at times, a little too drawn out. I think the text could have been tightened up in a few places without losing any of the impact. However, this is a minor criticism of what is otherwise a very well-crafted and thoughtful novel.

I have read several of LeGuin’s novels, and have enjoyed them all. ‘Powers’ continues the trend and is fully worthy of its Nebula Award. Characters, setting and plot are all explored with great skill and deftness of touch. This may be a YA novel but it tells a story that deserves to be read by children and adults alike.

Patrick Mahon

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