"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
January 29, 2013
Ursula K Le Guin's Voices
by Erin Cowles

Have I established that I have a soft spot for books that celebrate the power of books? OK then. I have another for you, this time in the fantasy genre: Ursula K Le Guin’s Voices. Le Guin is best known for her elegant Earthsea cycle, and while this story isn’t of quite the same caliber as Earthsea, it is still a powerful and thought-provoking book.

Ansul, a once peaceful and educated city that is part of the timeless and fictitious Western Shore, has spent the past seventeen years under a harsh occupation. The Alds are cruel and violent, and they have forbidden reading and writing, which they consider corrupt acts of demon-worship. Memer, a child of the rapes that occurred when the city fell, lives full of hatred and craves revenge against the city’s oppressors.

Things change for Memer when the city’s prior leader teaches her how to read and shows her the city’s hidden library. The stories give her hope and purpose. When a foreign poet and his wife appear, Memer learns the power of the stories they bring, and of the poetry and legends she has learned in her own study.

She also learns to better understand the complexity and humanity of her oppressors. As the words of the poets encourage the people to rebel, Memer and her mentors use their heritage and the power of their words to bring change without losing a core part of their identity in hatred and vengeance.

Memer’s voice is authentic, and her character development rang true. Memer understandably held a lot of hatred in her heart, and releasing hatred is complicated and messy. As she interacts with the Alds as part of her friendship with the poet, she doesn’t have big epiphany moments where she suddenly sees their humanity and instantly forgives and loves them. As she starts to understand their motivation and humanity, she often still feels anger and lashes out. But as time progresses, she learns that accomplishing the greater good is more complicated than establishing who is right and punishing who is wrong. While there is certainly cruelty and prejudice in the Alds, there are also noble traits where the two cultures can find common ground and work towards peace.

I should note that Memer’s city was thoroughly ravaged, and rape and sexual slavery were a part of this. There aren’t any graphic descriptions, but it is a frequent presence in the book, so be wary if you have a sensitivity about sexual abuse.

Pagan worship is also a central part of this book. There’s nothing overtly anti-Christian about it, but the deities do have the power to act in this story, so if the idea of the main characters worshipping and receiving blessings from multiple fictitious Gods makes you uncomfortable, you’ll probably want to steer clear of Le Guin’s work.

Voices is the second book in the Annals of the Western Shore series, but it stands alone. While characters from this book appear in other parts of the series, this story is thoroughly Memer’s – her path from anger and violence to wisdom and power.

Read this book if…

  • You like your fantasy to have a timeless feel, rather than a futuristic one.
  • It just seems too tidy to you when there’s an epic battle, the oppressor retreats, and suddenly the world is perfect. The peace that Ansul finds is a realistic one, full of compromises and diplomacy.
  • You like books that look darkness and destruction in the face, but show the importance of hope and the capacity to rebuild.

Target Audience: Ages 16 and up


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About Erin Cowles

Erin Cowles is a mother of two, living in the Washington D.C. suburbs. Before motherhood, she used her masters in library and information science in a law firm library. Now she uses it to find good books for her family at her local public library. She teaches part time for a SAT prep company, where she enjoys the challenge of making rather dull subject matter interesting and making college a reality for her students. During women's history month, she profiles Mormon women that inspire her at ldswomenshistory.blogspot.com.

Erin currently serves as a counselor in her ward's primary presidency.

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