Planet of Exile-Ursula LeGuin

Opening: “In the last days of the moonphase of Autumn a wind blew from the northern ranges through the dying forests of Askatevar, a cold wind that smelled of smoke and snow.”

I had previously read the first book in this trilogy (Rocannon’s World), and enjoyed it. I’ve been meaning to finish out the trilogy for awhile and finally picked this one up.

I wasn’t sure if this would take place on the same world as Rocannon, and it’s been long enough since I read the first book that I couldn’t immediately tell. What we have here is an alternating narrative between the three main characters: Jakob Agat, one of the few Exiles left on this planet, Wold, the aging head of one of the native groups, and Rolery, one of Wold’s daughters. Oddly enough, the main crisis of the book is that Winter is coming. I know, right?*

It’s hard for me to say whether I liked this book. LeGuin has always tended to a detached style; understatement is most definitely the name of the game. When this works, it works very well (throughout Earthsea, for example) and provides a great antidote to more emotional styles. But here I think it veers into problematic territory. This is not just detached. Jakob and Rolery, ostensibly at the heart of the story, are almost completely devoid of interiority and even motivation. So their actions do not necessarily make sense because we are not given the basis to judge why they take place. There’s an important plot point where I felt like I must have missed something because it seemed so random. Wold is probably the best characterized of the three, but he is old and forgetful and so the main impression I gained of him is a vagueness punctuated by moments of lucidity.

In part, I think this problem arises because LeGuin is fundamentally uninterested in the characters.** She wants to ask questions, about gender, about who constitutes humanity. The exiles think of themselves as human, but if they are adapting to the world, if they are losing the things that tied them to their ancestors, how human can they be? Will they become indistinguishable from the hilfs in another few generations? All these questions are interesting, but they presuppose that the reader will be more interested in them than the characters that bring them into being. I tend to read for character, and so I found this fairly aggravating.

In the end, I kept reading because, you know, it’s LeGuin. And I’ll probably read the third book for just that reason.

Book source: public library
Book information: Harper & Row, 1978; adult sci-fi

Ursula LeGuin, previously

* I actually haven’t read Game of Thrones, and I gave up on the TV series after about two episodes, but I did catch enough to get some of the pet quotes.

** In this book, not in general.

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6 Comments

Filed under bookish posts, reviews

6 responses to “Planet of Exile-Ursula LeGuin

  1. I see (from your Le Guin list) that you haven’t read her best works (or, you just haven’t reviewed them) — The Left Hand of Darkness and THe Dispossessed — you should, they’re classics for a good reason. Both are much much beter than this one (which I still enjoyed).

  2. Le Guin’s world building is second to none — it’s on show in this work as well… The problem is, the characters are rather banal….

  3. I certainly think that Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed are essential Le Guins, but for wonderful character I’d suggest Four Ways to Forgiveness! Planet of Exile is, I agree, rather cold, character-wise….

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