Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Powers

Ursula K. Le Guin
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


This book was only available in the Young Adult section of my library. And, after reading it, I can see why; this is definitely a book for teenagers.

As I’ve said before, I really enjoy some of Le Guin’s work, and then there are other books of hers that I don’t like so much. The books that I don’t like usually fall into one of two groups: those that are too dreamy and those that have too heavy-handed a Message. This book fell too far into both of these categories for me.

The Message in this book is that slavery is evil. (Which, of course, it is.) The story is about a young slave boy, Gavir, who has been brought up in a comparatively benevolent household. He is in denial, at first, about how bad it is to be a slave, because his life appears to be pretty good. His masters are not overtly cruel; he is able to live with his beloved sister, Sallo; and he gets to go to school with the master’s children because he’s being trained to be a teacher.

But eventually his little world starts falling apart and he begins questioning the system. He gets bullied by some of the less benevolent members of the household. His home gets invaded by another country. And the last straw is the awful murder of his sister, which finally makes him run away for good.

After he runs away, he lives in several different kinds of societies, including a city of freed men; a cave with a wild man of the hills; a camp of runaway slaves in the heart of the forest run by a megalomaniac misogynist; and the poor marshland settlements of his own people from whom he was stolen as a baby. From them all he is exposed to alternative governments and different attitudes towards women, work, war, and cooperation.

For those who track such things, Gavir’s story is the classic monomyth: he is born under mysterious circumstances, shows early evidence of supernatural abilities (he can see visions of the future), goes on a long journey or quest, encounters several father figures from whom he has to become independent, and has to have a showdown with an arch enemy to finally prove himself.

Anyway, the point, which, of course, Gavir eventually realizes after all of this, is that a cage is still a cage no matter how gilded it is. That slavery is an evil institution, however disguised it may be, and a limited freedom is no freedom at all.

This is all very well and good a message, but so obviously delivered.

And the characters are so black and white. Gavir and his sister are one hundred percent good, eager naïfs. They have unquestioning obedience to and reverence for their masters. They are hard-working and earnest. And the bad guys are uniformly awful bullies. And of course Gavir has to take their bullying without complaint and without retaliation because he’s just so earnest and good.

The story is also not all that exciting. Gavir's life really isn’t all that difficult most of the time. He is in physical danger maybe twice, and in an actual physical conflict a couple more times, but these situations are all generally over in about a minute. Even his escape from slavery is easy.

And all of the pivotal events in the book are instigated and resolved by external forces without any action on Gavir's part. He is swept along by events, not directing of them. Even his final showdown is won essentially passively, by natural forces, not by anything special he does.

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