Voices (Annals of the Western Shore) by Ursula K Le Guin

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Voices (Annals of the Western Shore) by Ursula K Le Guin

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: A coming of age story in a well realised fantasy setting, this novel deals with cultural differences and prejudices that breed hate and contempt; has a strong female lead and great supporting characters and comes highly recommended for all readers aged 12 and upwards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 472 Date: May 2007
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1842555613

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Quite a few of LeGuin's books are shelved in children/young readers sections of the libraries. I don't really know why it is so, as her tales are universally readable, enjoyable and there is nothing childish or simplistic about them - in some ways they are more grown up that many supposedly adult examples of fantasy (and no, I don't mean Gor). They certainly have a universal appeal, as "proper" myths, fairly tales and legends often do.

The narrator and heroine of Voices is a teenager, though: Memer, a child of rape conceived during an invasion of the beautiful and peace-loving merchant city of Ansul by the Alds of the desert. The events described in Voices take part 17 years after the invasion, though the background of the story is given in the first chapter or so. Such background-giving often feels forced in books, and is often overdone in fantasy and s-f where there is a whole world to explain, and boy, don't the authors explain away; but LeGuin weaves it seamlessly into the wholeness of Memer's tale - it's natural and very much in place.

Alds are monotheistic, fanatical and warlike; they worship a fire god and have an official priestly caste; women are not treated as equals in their society but get locked away. But most of all, they mistrust and hate writing: the books and the reading are banned under their rule. Memer is living in the house of the old Waylord of Ansul: now half-broken with Alds' torture, but still retaining some authority of his old office and of his family which has been living and guarding Galvamead for generations. People bring them books they rescued to their house and when the travelling poet Orrec with his wife Gry who walks with a desert lion come to Ansul, they stay at Galvamead. The subverted people of Ansul are finally gathering strength to regain their freedom: a new generation has grown and all they need is a spark.

LeGuin's writing reminds me of Margaret Atwood, in fact Atwood herself is quoted praising LeGuin's writing quality on the back cover. It's measured, compact prose; wise and clear, quiet but powerful. But as befits her genre, LeGuin is a teller of tales, and there is something very female - not feminine by any means - about her writing: the use of female leading characters which behave and think like women, the concentration on the social aspects of the worlds she describes, but also the continuing exploration of the interplay between male and female in the society and in the individual. In Voices this is rather obvious in the contrast between the Alds and the people from Ansul, the warriors and the traders, the (vaguely) democratic and the (tribal) autocratic.

Voices is a coming of age tale, with the main character young, hot headed and full of promise, but also full of hatred and rage, unsure of herself and erring but willing to admit to mistakes, take shame and guilt and learn from them. There are powerful mother and father figures: the Waylord is a spiritual and intellectual father, with his own fragilities but ultimately at his most impressive when admitting to the weakness. It's his responsibilities that Memer will, eventually, have to take after mastering her own fears. In a strange reversal of sexual stereotypes, the Waylord stands for tradition, for staying put, for connection to the place, to the source. It's Gry the companion of a wandering poet, she who can speak to animals and somehow also read Memer's feelings and thoughts that becomes a mother (or maybe an older sister) figure; but she is also a sign of a dynamic challenge, beacon of freedom, the need to travel away in order to come back.

The conflict between the Alds and the people of Ansul is at the heart of the story, though. It's about hate based on lack of knowledge and lack of knowledge and understanding breeding contempt, hate and violence. It shows how myths and ungrounded attitudes are perpetrated and reinforced when people from two cultures live in one place but live separate lives, without making effort to know and understand each other: and how difficult this can be when one of the groups is an occupying force still remembered for death, rape and pillage it wrecked while the other is seen as immoral, depraved and tainted by evil spirits. I couldn't help but think that there was some topical allusions in LeGuin's choice of religions and societal lifestyles to differentiate Alds and their subordinates: the warrior tribe full of insecure men in constant fear and competition with each other, their monotheistic religion based on the idea that all the others forms of sacredness worship evil, the perception of women who are free to walk about and speak up as sexually impure, the pursuit of holiness and desire to eradicate demons.

All of this is described through Memer's eyes and thus is a fresh, subjective, emotional view. The denouement achieved via the combination of mystical powers intervening and reasoned self-interest is somehow a little bit too optimistic for my expectations, but to give it its due, it felt like a hard achieved goal rather and I think is overall appropriate for a book targeted at a younger audience.

I highly recommend Voices for pretty much everybody but the most cynical and jaded decadents. For an adult, it will provide an entertaining, gentle read with an engaging main character, clear but not preachy message and a pleasure derived from an encounter with another world whose geographic, social and mystical realities can be explored. The fantasy setting should really not bother anybody unless you are totally allergic to anything beyond classic realism. The novel is eminently suitable for younger readers too, although the lack of high-octane non-stop action might put off younger readers, especially boys: but a well-read 12 year old could easily enjoy it. It's a part of The Annals of the Western Shore but it's a stand alone complete tale, linked by some characters and the world they are set in but perfectly readable on its own (and in my opinion better than the preceding Gifts).

Lene Kaaberbol's Silverhorse is brilliant fantasy thriller for younger teens, also touching on questions of gender and power with a strong female lead. Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter is an altogether darker and rougher coming of age story with striking emotional intensity which deals with loneliness, sexuality and love; it is set in a rather nightmarish Faerie and perhaps better kept for older teens.

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