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Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices

voicesVoices is the middle book of a loosely connected trilogy written for a YA audience, which was first published in 2006. I’ve read the whole trilogy, but it was Voices that I remembered best, and Voices that I owned. And since the books really are fairly unconnected, reading it out of order wasn’t a problem.

As the story begins, the city of Ansul has been occupied by the Alds for some years. The narrator, Memer, is a child of that occupation and much of the book deals with her anger towards the Ald and her desire to see them thrown out of the country.

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the way the conflict between Ald and Ansul is portrayed: the Ald are shown to be fearful of all knowledge, writing and books. Their religion is a strict and narrow one which seeks to overcome all others. Ansul, on the other hand, is at least in the past full of learning, culture, and beauty, While this point of view is definitely being filtered through Memer, and while it does eventually become more complicated, I still remain somewhat uneasy about the potential echoes of real-world cultures.

However, I did really like the way the religion of Ansul was shown. Le Guin does something interesting where over the course of the book we go from the outward details of worship and ritual (the way Memer tends to the shrines in Galvamand, for example) to the actual inner heart and meaning of the faith. Sometimes religion in fantasy books, even when respectfully shown, is kind of a surface level. Here, there was a richness of image and meaning that I really appreciated.

For instance, Lero is both the idea of balance, and “the ancient, sacred soul of the ground where our city stands…the moment of balance…a great round stone down in the Harbor Market, so poised that it might move at any time and yet has never moved.” It is all of these things at once, and over the course of the book we begin to see this kind of meaning behind the customs and rituals of the physical and outward expressions of faith.

Memer herself is a really interesting character to me. I appreciated that she’s allowed to be a number of things, sometimes contradictory: angry, loyal, afraid, brave, sure of herself. Le Guin is really good at showing her emotions both in an outward way, but most especially what’s underneath. It really is a case of showing rather than telling, to the point that this book may not work for all readers. But I liked it, especially since Le Guin does really understand how people can be feeling one thing and express it in a completely different way.

I also liked that Memer is given a point of view that’s very powerful throughout the book, and yet at the same time we see other experiences and perspectives, and she is not judged and her opinion discounted. It is tempered, somewhat, but she’s never shamed for having felt what she did in the past.

Although I would say that this is a much different book than the earlier Earthsea cycle, it does have some common concerns. The idea of secret knowledge is key to both the plot and character development here, as is the danger of books and knowledge. Le Guin is clearly fascinated by both the power and difficulties of story, knowledge, and power, all of which are interconnected.

Indeed, this book begins with the act of writing, and books are a source of tension and comfort throughout. Early on, Memer says “I knew the Tales were stories not history, but they gave me the truths I needed and wanted: about courage, friendship, loyalty to the death…my love for the heroes of Manva was my heart’s blood. It gave me strength.” I was very interested in the way that books and heritage are both sources of strength for her, and indeed the way that they’re bound together. The heritage of Galva is strong and fearsome and what keeps both Memer and the Waylord going. Her journey is not simply being able to see the Ald as humans, but to grapple with the darkness at the end of the secret room in Galvamand–that is, to face what is fearsome about what she also loves.

One of the other things I appreciated about the way Le Guin unfolds the story is the way the oracle operates. Oracles and prophecies of course have a long history in fantasy, but they’re frequently–well–terrible. Le Guin’s oracle is impenetrable and its meaning is not straightforward. Even when it becomes clear, it’s not a simple matter of the king returning, or whatever. Its function is a more poetic one, in the sense that it’s not a strict analogy, but rather an image, a phrase that even its speakers must work to understand.

I should note that for the first part of this book, I was engaged and happy to be reading it, noting down various themes and questions I had. But then a little over halfway through, I suddenly became immersed in the story, only able to dogear the pages that I wanted to go back and look at again. It’s not that I turned off my critical faculty, but rather that the writing and story had gone deeper in a way that engaged my emotions as well as my head.

A lot of this shift is due to the way the second half engages with the idea of renewal. We see a slow process of thoughtful resistance and reclamation, as well as a shifting understand of the Alds and their culture and role in Ansuldar. This renewal takes place within cultural, familial, and personal spheres, as we see Ansul coming back to life, the oracle at Galvamand returning, and Memer herself having a new and more complex understanding of herself and her world. This section is beautifully hopeful–the kind of hard-won, deeply treasured hope that I love reading about. It’s not shown as a simple or easy process, and yet it provides the real resolution of the book: a sense that things can change, that what’s lost can sometimes be found.

I do have to note, though, that one of the most powerful moments where you feel the whole story shift is marred by the fact that it contains what looks a lot like a magical cure for disability. The Waylord, who was tortured and lamed by the Alds after their invasion, appears to Memer (presumably touched by the grace of the Oracle and the gods) as “he had been, and as my heart had always known him: a tall, straight, beautiful man, smiling, with fire in his eyes.” While this transformation isn’t permanent, the way it’s presented does fit into the pattern of a magical cure.

Despite a few reservations, I did really love reading this book. Le Guin really does focus more on the lives of and relationships between women, and I appreciated that. Most of all, I found that her gift for writing deeply about important things is in full force here. The questions that Memer, and by extension we readers, grapples with are not simple ones, and the answers we see are not simple either. This is a subtle and complex book that’s a demanding and yet enchanting read, and I’m glad I revisited it.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 2006, Harcourt, Inc; YA fantasy

“They too had gifts of their lineage. They knew the burdens and chances laid on us by the shadows in our blood and bone, and by the spirits of the place we live in.” 323

“It made the darkness of the cave less uncanny, to imagine that my mother’s spriit  was there, with all the other mothers of my race, and they wouldn’t seek to frighten me.”

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

8 replies on “Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: Voices”

I thought I had read this trilogy, but your description of Voices isn’t ringing any bells with me. I do remember being a little underwhelmed with Gifts, so maybe I just never went on to read the sequels. From what you say, I think I might like Voices a lot better.

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