The books belong to a loosely-connected trilogy. Chronologically, Gifts comes first, but it is in no way necessary to read them in that order, and I happened to do the opposite. The third book, Powers, has not been released in paperback yet.
For some reason I found Voices and Gifts in the young adult section in the bookshop, just like the Earthsea books. I don’t know why, because there isn’t much “young adult” about them, apart from the protagonists, and the size – these are no brick-sized lumps. (And if the age of the characters determines the audience, then why isn’t the rest of the bookshop grouped by age?) It’s a shame, because Le Guin’s young adult books are far more mature and intelligent than most fantasy that’s marketed to adults.
Both books are about growing up – not so much about learning as about growing wiser and losing that teenage righteous anger, and about finding your place in the world. And that isn’t particularly easy, given the harsh worlds and hard lives these characters start out with. Most of Voices takes place in an occupied city, and the protagonist, Memer, is a siege brat, born after her mother was raped by one of the occupying soldiers. In Gifts, Orrec lives on a highland farm, with raids from neighbouring domains a normal part of his life.
In Voices books and reading are forbidden. Memer is one of the few of her generation who learns to read, since the occupiers believe that reading and writing are evil and outlaw both. Books become a passion for her, and she yearns to overthrow the occupying army. In the end she is forced to learn that they are only human, just like her, despite everything they have done.
In Gifts certain highland families have special gifts, such as the ability to call animals, or to strike a man dumb. The story revolves around the effect of these gifts – sometimes desired, sometimes unwanted – on both the wielder and the people around them. The power to destroy by looking and pointing at a thing, for example… It makes you look at the world with different eyes, and makes others look at you differently, too. On the whole these gifts, which at first glance seem magical, seem to cause more trouble than good. It’s a darker book than Voices, with more pain and grief, but nevertheless ends on a positive note. As with Voices, stories and storytelling play an important role. Much of the happiness in Orrec’s life comes from stories – first from the stories his mother tells her, then from stories that he makes up himself.
One of the aspects I really liked in both books was that they never turned into a simplistic good-vs-evil story. The occupying army in Voices are really just humans, not evil monsters, and the city is finally liberated with the help of words rather than arms. The bad guys in Gifts are a bit more all-black, no-good baddies, but here their role is limited and the story focuses much more on Orrec’s own acts and decisions.
The language is as good as in all other Le Guin books. It is simple, restrained, and beautiful, and poetic without ever being overblown. Wonderful to read, and I wish there was more of it.
If you want to hear more, here’s a review of Voices that I liked.
Voices at Amazon UK, Gifts at Amazon UK.
Voices at Amazon US, Gifts at Amazon US.