bookish posts reviews

Always Coming Home by Ursula K Le Guin

I’ve had a previously undeclared quest over the past few years to read as much Ursula K Le Guin as I can. Her more well known and recent works–like Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore–are old friends, but she wrote a lot more. A number of those earlier and more forgotten works are now being reissued, which helps except that it also fills me with rage that these seminal books from a giant figure in SFF are just now being republished after her death.. (I have a lot to say about a system which ignores women writers while they live and rewards them with posthumous praise, which allows them in only when they’re writing in “approved” genres and then slams those genres as immature and less important, #ursulashouldhaveanobel, Joanna Russ was right. Read and recognize women writers.)

SO. I am both really sad at the circumstances and glad to have finally read Always Coming Home. It’s a strange book, a book that’s almost all un-narrative. I called it a book of worldbuilding on Twitter by which I meant that it’s the kind of work SFF writers usually do invisibly to create a world which they then write a narrative in, work which remains largely hidden but without which the world doesn’t come alive. Here, this work makes up most of the book. I didn’t realize until just now that this almost exactly the description of “women’s work” but having realized it, I can’t stop thinking about it.

Le Guin calls Always Coming Home an “archaeology of the future”–a record of the daily life, beliefs, and practices of a people who live in some version of a future California. It’s an idea which I think was important to her understanding of the book and structuring of it. But it made me uneasy, because archaeology is such a fraught and political field, which has often been used in the service of western colonialism and white supremacy. And I don’t know that Le Guin ever fully grapples with the implications of setting her project in that context. If anyone knows of perspectives from Native critics on this, I want to read them.

That unease is real and I don’t want to just lay it down and say that this book is great regardless. But I will say that Always Coming Home succeeds far better than it has any right to. The narrative form is deliberately challenging and asks us to set aside our notions of what a book should be. It asks us to set aside our understanding of books themselves. As one of the Kesh people says, “Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.”  I said on Twitter that one of Le Guin’s great gifts is the ability to unsettle and force the reader out of our comfortable patterns of thought. I don’t always agree with her–in fact I often disagree–but I’m always enriched by doing so.

One of her other great gifts is the strength of her language. There’s a way that she wrote which holds so much emotional density and complexity of meaning in a few words. It’s not simply that she was good at stringing words together in a nice-sounding sentence. It’s that she uses these nice-sounding sentences sparingly and effectively, so that they hold more meaning and more emotion than they otherwise would. I can’t really describe this in technical writing terms, but  as a reader I feel it every time.

Perhaps my least favorite parts of the book are the moments when the compiler, the archaeologist, herself speaks. These are all titled “Pandora” and I found them distracting from the main sections of the book, and the places where the archaeology aspect of the project was most troubling. The one exception is the section where Pandora talks with one of the Kesh people about about information, and the flawed systems we have in place for access to it.

Because this book is very long and very rich, I could talk about a lot more. But instead, I will just quote part of one of the poems in the book, meant as an initiation song for the people who leave the Valley that is their home and go out into the wider world.

“Please bring strange things.
Please come bringing new things.
Let very old things come into your hands.
Let what you do not know come into your eyes.”

“Walk carefully, well loved one,
walk mindfully, well loved one,
walk fearlessly, well loved one.
Return with us, return to us,
be always coming home.”

Other posts about Ursula K Le Guin:
Planet of Exile (2011)
Gifts (2011)
Lavinia (2011)
Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea (2016)
Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan (2016)
Reading Notes: Voices (2016)

Previously, on By Singing Light:
Recovery Reading: non-mysteries (2018)
The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier (2016)
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (2015)
How I Became a Ghost by Tim Tingle (2014)
Cold Magic by Kate Elliott (2011)

bookish posts reading notes reviews

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.”

bookish posts reading notes reviews

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: The Tombs of Atuan

Reading Notes returns! This month, I’ll be looking at assorted books by Ursula K. Le Guin. The first post on A Wizard of Earthsea, is here.

tombsThis post is quite late now, mostly because Real Life Things have gotten in the way recently. But also: I’ve been struggling with my reaction to this book, both with identifying it and putting it into words.

It’s easy in one way to look at A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan as a fairly deliberate mirroring. The Wizards’ school is a male place; the Tombs are a female one. Ged is overflowing with power and pride; Arha has both, but in a very different way. The attitudes towards magic and the old powers if the earth are also pretty much opposed.

This is an interesting and bold choice on Le Guin’s part. This second book opens with an entirely different setting, culture, and characters than the first book in the series. In fact, Ged doesn’t even appear until the book is over halfway done.

Instead, we are given the story of Tenar, who becomes Arha, the Eaten One. She is taken from her family and has almost no memory of who she was. Instead she grows up in the holy compound of the Tombs of Atuan, learning the rites she must perform.

Arha is a fascinating character to me, because she is so lost to herself for much of the book. She’s not uninteresting at any stage, but I always felt a shadow of what she might have been. Whereas Ged is pretty brash, even after he begins to learn the limits of power, Arha is much more compressed. Rather than learning the limits of power, her journey is learning to break free of the patterns of a wrong belief.

And we see her begin to do this, slowly and gradually, even before Ged shows up. But, in keeping with Arha herself, this process is understated, even hidden. It takes place in dreams, in refusals rather than in positive action. Arha cannot admit that the system in which she believes, which affords her even the small amount of power that she has, can be wrong. The moments when Penthe, her friend and narratively speaking her foil, shows her another perspective are powerful but also deeply upsetting to Arha. She reacts with puzzlement and even anger.

I wanted to talk a little bit more about the way the system is shown on Atuan, because this is the heart of my discomfort with the book. As I said before, the Tombs of Atuan are a place for women. No men can step into the Tombs themselves, although they can visit the Temple (they mostly don’t; part of the tension of the book is between the power of the new upstart male rulers of Karego-At, who have their own gods and don’t worship the Nameless Ones as much). The eunuchs who serve the priestesses can enter, but even they are limited in where they are allowed to go.

So, this is a primarily female society. And this is good in one sense, because it gives us a sense of different characters. Kossil is pretty malicious and awful, but on the other hand, we also have Thar, who is mostly kind and wise. And there’s also Arha, and Penthe, both of whom are their own people and who have personal and complex reactions to the world.

This is all much better than A Wizard of Earthsea, and at first I felt pretty relieved about that. But then I started considering the fact that “not literally all the female characters are evil!” is not actually a super high bar. And that this place that is from the very beginning of the book shown to be specifically a place for and run by women turns out to be kind of evil–it is the thing Arha has to win free of. So I have a pretty complicated reaction to the last part of the book, beginning when Ged shows up.

On the one hand, Arha’s disenchantment with the cruelties of Kossil and the demands of the gods she worships finally breaks free. She cannot do what she should and simply have Ged killed. She cannot decide what to do with him, but her decision to let him live, at least temporarily, is her own decision, based on her experience after the robbers earlier in the book died. This is one of my favorite moments in the book.

And I found it believable and compelling that, having made this decision, she didn’t simply keep going on that trajectory. Humans don’t simply make decisions and stick to them, most of the time; her conflictedness and contradictions not only keep the plot moving, they show her as a real person.

On the other hand, I remain uncomfortable with two and a half things. First: that it takes the appearance of Ged, who naturally knows everything and can teach Arha how to be good for this to actually be set into motion. I keep going back and forth here–Arha decides of her own self to save his life, but then the real resolution, her escape from the Nameless Ones and their hold over her is all led by Ged.

This includes even the half thing, which is one of the most powerful moments in the book, at the end of the “Ring of Erreth-Akbe” chapter, when Arha dies and Tenar is reborn. It’s a lovely scene, and yet–and yet I wished that a little more of it had come from Tenar herself, and a little less from Ged. It’s a good case of liking the individual thing and at the same time being aware of the pattern it’s a part of.

The second thing I remain uncomfortable with is the extent to which the book sets up female society=bad and rotten and male society=good and salvific. Granted, in this book Gont and its surrounding country isn’t coded quite so explicitly For The Men, it certainly is coded that way in the first book. And while Tenar hopes that not everyone died in the earthquake that follows their escape, again this seems like kind of a low bar.

I suspect that had the emphasis been slightly different–had Thar still been alive, had there been one woman who Tenar truly loved and respected and did not want to lose–I would feel better about this. As it is, I think that the overall effect of The Tombs of Atuan is a very mixed one for me: it’s more generous to women than A Wizard of Earthsea, and there are parts of it that I find beautiful and genuinely moving. At the same time, I can’t excuse the issues that still run through it, because they are still present, and still troubling.

Finally, I will mention that Tenar’s story, far more than Ged’s, feels unfinished. A Wizard of Earthsea was fairly self-contained, although there were hints of things Ged had not yet done. I wasn’t originally planning to re-read Tehanu, but I may do so anyway, just to feel that the story actually has a real conclusion. (I’m still going to be doing Voices and Lavinia for the last two posts in this series.) This isn’t a criticism so much as a realization that it might be part of my discomfort with the ending of the book: that it feels so unresolved.

Book source: personal library

Book information: 1970, Atheneum Books; adult/YA fantasy


bookish posts reading notes reviews

Ursula Le Guin Reading Notes: A Wizard of Earthsea

earthseaReading Notes returns! This month, I’ll be looking at assorted books by Ursula K. Le Guin, beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea.

A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968, following a couple of earlier short stories that were set on Earthsea but did not contain the main characters of the central series. It’s even earlier than McKillip’s Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy, and I’m curious about the history of high fantasy and whether Earthsea is the first enduring series written by a woman. (I don’t have the background knowledge to say whether this is true or not, but I’d be curious to hear from others if you have any sense.) It’s in fact so surprisingly early that I found myself wondering to what extent Le Guin was actually influenced by Tolkien. (I assume she must have been to some extent, and yet LotR didn’t really hit the US full-force until the mid-1960s.)

I first read this book in 2007 (having a handy searchable list of my reading for the past 10 years is SO nice). Although I loved it then and continued to think of the series as one of my favorites, I’m not sure I have ever re-read at least this first book! Because of this, I was both interested and a little worried about my reaction; sometimes going back to books you loved can be a mistake.

In this case, it wasn’t. Le Guin is a marvelous writer and it’s interesting to read this story with a more adult mind. I certainly think I caught more of what she was trying to do than before.

Part of what made the reading experience so interesting are the tone and prose style A Wizard of Earthsea is written in. It’s a slight book, and it covers a lot of chronological ground. The story actually begins with the land, situating us physically and geographically. I don’t think this is an accident; while Ged is important to the story, he is also treated with detachment and clear-sightedness. Le Guin also writes the story in a heightened and at the same time tightened prose style. It’s the kind of epic language which can go wrong very easily, and which has–possibly because of this–definitely fallen out of fashion. Le Guin, like Tolkien, can pull it off. But unlike Tolkien, her prose has the sense of not a single word being used unnecessarily. This isn’t meant as a dig at Tolkien, but they are writing different stories with different aims.

One of the other things A Wizard of Earthsea does share with Lord of the Rings specifically is worldbuilding where there’s a sense of things that we don’t entirely see. Le Guin references but does not always explain the mythology of the Archipelago, the festivals and rituals, the poetry and epics. I love this; if there’s a failure of modern worldbuilding I think it’s often to over-explain. I’m curious to know how much Le Guin had worked all of this out for herself. With Tolkien, of course, we know: the publication of The Silmarillion, and The Book of Lost Tales, and the Unfinished Tales, etc has made the mythology known. But here what we have is that same feeling I remember reading Lord of the Rings for the first time: a depth of culture and history and mythology that I don’t understand but that is real and felt throughout the book.

But Le Guin is not in any way simply writing in response to Tolkien (to whatever degree she was). In fact, I found it really fascinating that A Wizard of Earthsea is so self-contained; the focus on the wizards, on the use of power, on one very flawed and human protagonist all give it a flavor that is wholly its own. It’s also very lacking in references to real-world events. While the question of the use and dangers of power is a relevant one, it’s always relevant; I wasn’t tempted to read in it a particular reference to contemporary events. (Contrast this with L’Engle, for instance, who is writing very much out of her particular historical moment.)

Perhaps the most important thread running through A Wizard of Earthsea, the theme to which Le Guin returns over and over again, is the idea of magic as power, but also danger and potential destruction. Ged’s struggle in the first quarter or so of the book is with his own power and his pride and reliance on it. Because it is not enough, in Earthsea, to simply be powerful. You have to understand your power; you have to approach it with humility. One of the first and hardest lessons that Ged learns is the limits of power: of mages’ power in general, and of his own. Early in the book we hear “that which gives us the power to work magic, sets the limits of that power. A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly.” Le Guin’s magic has rules, although they are not always strictly logical ones, and the wrongful use of that magic brings destruction.

Ged starts off the book as incredibly flawed–if he were a female protagonist, the reviews would be full of the word unlikeable. He is stubborn, he is proud, he is envious and resentful, he is sure of himself and his superiority to everyone else. The narrator even says, “for the most part he was all work and pride and temper.” It’s only when he calls up the shadow that he is confronted by his own lacks, but even then he overcorrects into a hesitance to use his power even when he should.

He’s also, after this point, curiously without agency. Not entirely, but throughout the central portion of the book, he is mostly running from his shadow, his past, and himself. Only about 50 pages from the end, when he has returned to Gont and Ogion does Ogion tell him: “If you go ahead, if you keep running, where you run you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.” It’s not enough to simply have the knowledge of power. You also have to choose how you will direct it, and at the same time that choice becomes constrained because there are things you are simply not willing to do. The Master Summoner on Roke alludes to this earlier when he says, “…the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do

And so, in the end, Ged does what he always had to, and what he never could have guessed: by “naming the shadow of his death with his own name, [he] had made himself whole: a man: who knowing his whole true self cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself.” Le Guin somehow manages to write about this really complex and deep theme in a way that’s balanced between explication and mystery. I ended the book thinking that I couldn’t really tell anyone what had happened, but I felt it very clearly. It’s perhaps most apparent in this image of balance that keeps showing up throughout the book. Vetch sings about it just after Ged’s last encounter with his shadow: “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light.” It’s in the tension that runs through Ogion’s words that I quoted earlier, and in the balance of power and lack of choice that the mages follow.

I am pretty awed by Le Guin’s ability to successfully write about these really complex topics while also writing Ged’s journey in this masterful, crystalline prose. At the same time, this isn’t an entirely perfect book, and I felt its lack most notably in the treatment of women. I believe that the series as a whole doesn’t stay here, and Le Guin is a writer I generally think of as pretty feminist. And yet–I can’t ignore the pattern in this book which is that not a single woman aside from fourteen-year-old Yarrow is treated with kindness. Women’s power is scorned while the women themselves are shown as envious, terrifying, and out to steal Ged’s power for themselves. Not to mention the fact that Roke doesn’t admit women to study there at all! I think it’s likely an unconscious pattern, but it’s pretty clearly there and I did feel I had to mention it.

Despite this, I am really glad that I decided to re-read this book; it’s rich and subtle and complex, and absolutely deserves its status as a fantasy classic.

Book source: personal library
Book information: 1968, Parnassus Press; fantasy (might be pubbed YA now?)

(I really like this fan-made cover!)