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Fantasy novel by Ursula K. Le Guin. * * * * 1/2 (explanation)

Orrec is a boy of sixteen recalling his upbringing in the Uplands, an collection of little hilly farming communities. These communities are ruled by various clans who greedily eye their neighbors, and sometimes raid each other for cattle or serfs. Among the clans of the Uplands are bloodlines that possess magical "gifts": some can call animals to them, some can enslave by destroying others' wills, some can twist a person's limbs at a glance, others can make a person slowly sicken and die. Those with the most powerful gifts are "brantors", considered rulers over those around them.

Orrec's father Canoc is the brantor of his particular patch of the Uplands, "Caspromant". Orrec's mother Melle was taken as (somewhat willing) booty by Canoc on a raid into the Lowlands in his youth, but Canoc has since settled into a life of horse and cattle breeding, managing to keep rival clans at bay with judicious use of his Gift. Canoc's gift is the power of Unmaking: causing plants to wither and die, or animals or even people to drop dead. Melle's gift is more mundane: Being a somewhat well-educated woman from the Lowlands, she can read and write, and teach this skill to Orrec and his friend Gry, daughter of the brantor of a neighboring patch, "Roddmant".

Orrec's material inheritance and his duty are tied into one package: learning to control and use his magical birthright. Blasting the Earth at a glance, or make someone's head split open like an overripe melon, isn't something you can do while whistling a jaunty tune. But with no-one to strike fear into its aggresive neighbors, especially the nasty Ogge Drammant, Caspromant would soon be absorbed.

Still, being raised surrounded by love makes it difficult for Orrec to assemble the requisite hate to Unmake things. Certainly it has taken years longer than normal for the Gift to manifest itself even the tiniest amount. And his power manifests itself wildly, without any control or awareness on the boy's part of Orrec. And so, Orrec walks around permanently blindfolded, lest he destroy those he loves at a glance.


As entertaining as Ursula K. Le Guin's previous work Changing Planes was, Gifts surpasses it. Ms. Le Guin appears to have done something I thought impossible: She has avoided all of the cliches of the fantasy genre, instead cooking up a superb broth of a story, with themes of power and duty, responsibility, morality, coming of age, love, envy, and a host of other things we use to call other novels great. Plus, evoking the Scottish Highlands without tossing a single caber.

But mixed in with all of those is magic, both the Gifts of her characters, and the author's own magical, mythical writing style. You will grow when you read Gifts, as you must do.

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