Ansul, once a beautiful, peaceful city of traders and scholars, was conquered seventeen years ago by the Alds—men of the desert who believe reading and writing to be evil acts, punishable by death. They also believe the Oracle House, where the last few undestroyed books are hidden, is seething with demons. But to seventeen-year-old Memer, the house is a blessed refuge, a place of family and learning, ritual and memory—the only place where she feels truly safe.
Then one day a poet named Orrec and his wife Gry arrive, and everything in Memer’s life begins to change. Will she, her family, and the people of Ansul find the power and the courage to rebel against their oppressors?
The second book of the Annals of the Western Shore, Voices is a haunting and gripping coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of violence, intolerance and magic.
I’ve never read an Ursula K. Le Guin book before, although technically I was supposed to have read Left Hand of Darkness in my dystopian fiction class. Obviously I didn’t, and in fact I’ve been somewhat intimidated by UKLG’s books. I’m not actually sure why I was so intimidated, but I think it must be the same sort of thing that kept me from reading James Joyce and William Faulkner until a couple of years ago. It’s a kind of “am I smart enough to read this and understand it?” thing. “This book is too highbrow for me.” I’m not sure where I got that notion, but I’ve had it for a while.
It wasn’t until I started reading bits of Ms Le Guin’s blog posts (specifically this one) that I thought I might be brave enough to try one of her books. So I raided my library’s shelves and brought away two: Voices and Powers.
Voices is a YA book, but it’s got so many layers of meaning and complex moral situations in it that I could write at least two good essays just analyzing the meaning of the title in relation to the rest of the book. I love how complex it is, and I love how it forced me to look at things that make me uncomfortable– like slavery and rape and one nation conquering another– and to analyze why they make me uncomfortable and what that means for the people in the story. This is a book that makes you think, but it does it in such a gentle way that if you aren’t paying attention I think you could miss some things.
What I actually liked best about Voices is how Memer, the protagonist, starts out thinking one way and yet by the end she changes. Not a lot, but just enough to keep her and her town from becoming another version of the people that conquered them. It’s a lesson in peace and communication and negotiation, and while it isn’t always what I as a reader want in a story (I know I’d have loved it if the conquering peoples got punished just a little bit more for being such bastards), people aren’t completely good or evil in real life, and they aren’t complete heroes or villains in Voices, either. They’re complex!
I also love how it made me pay more attention to the conquered rather than just the conquerors. In history classes we tend to only learn about who overtook who, and we don’t get a lot of info about what happens to the people who were overtaken. It’s easy to get caught up in “heck yeah, the Romans conquered yet another country! Woo!” and never think of the other side of things. Voices has made me think more about the effects of war and conquest, and I truly appreciate that. But then, it’s not even as simple as conquerors = evil and conquered = good, and Voices showed that, too.
There were some things about Ms Le Guin’s writing style that bugged me, but I truly enjoyed reading Voices (hell, I finished it in one afternoon!) and I look forward to reading all her other books I can get my hands on. I’m not afraid of them any longer, nope.
Read: January 21, 2010