BooksOfTheMoon

Changing Planes: Armchair Travel for the Mind

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of short stories linked by the idea that you can travel other worlds (planes) through the boredom of a missed flight at an airport with “a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe”. The stories represent descriptions of these other worlds that the author has either visited (or, in some cases, descriptions from others who have visited). For the most part, they’re gentle anthropological imaginings of different societies and different species. Although that’s not to say that bad things don’t happen. When you’re talking about societies over time, that’s inevitable.

Peoples discussed include the Islai whose experimentation with genetic manipulation had a terrible cost; the Asonu, who just stop talking as they grow up, and the travellers who come to follow them and analyse the few utterings they do make; and the Hegn, where almost everyone has royal connection, and the attention they pay to their few common families.

It’s a great collection of stories, well thought out and written by someone with a strong anthropological background, which makes for some well told tales.

Book details

ISBN: 9780575076235
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2004

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Volume 2

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This was a solid collection of fairly early(ish) stories from one of the greats of SF, one who did a lot to show that it could be more than pulp and could be real literature. Here, we have stories like Things, which has one man refusing to acknowledge the End of Things; The Stars Below about an early scientist who runs afoul of the religious authorities of his age and finds shelter in a worked-out mine; and, of course, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, possibly one of the most famous SF short stories. Hauntingly beautiful, we’re led from the description of a happy, prosperous city, step by step to the dark secret that underpins it all.

In amongst these beautiful pieces, there are more journeyman works. Vaster Than Empires and More Slow has a great premise and tackles interesting issues, but the psychological analyses are of its time. The Field of Vision is another very interesting story but I must confess that it rather lost me by the end. The Day Before the Revolution is a prequel to The Dispossessed, telling the story of Laia Odo, one of the key figures in the society of the novel. There’s also space for some more fun work. Direction of the Road is a humorous piece that I’ve read before and enjoyed every time. The only real misfire for me in this collection was A Trip to the Head, which seems to have themes of memory and identity, or maybe just drugs, I really wasn’t sure.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586046234
Publisher: Panther
Year of publication: 1978

The Unreal and the Real Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 5 stars

I liked the second volume of Ursula K Le Guin’s self-curated collection of short stories better than the first. This volume contains her more overtly SFF stories, which are definitely more up my street than the Literary stories of the first. Le Guin’s writing remains beguiling and a joy to read and these stories have the combination of character and plot that I prefer over focus on just character. Favourites include the Hainish stories, particularly The Matter of Seggri, a classic SF what-if story asking what would happen on a world where women vastly outnumbered men; Solitude, where a field ethnologist takes her two young children to a pre-contact planet where the adults are split by gender and rarely talk to one another; The Wife’s Story is a different take on the werewolf genre; and, of course, The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Call it a fable, a warning story or what you will, it’s a beautiful, and immensely chilling story. Not a word is wasted and it remains with the reader long after the last page. It makes us question ourselves, and I have the haunting feeling that I wouldn’t have the strength of character to be one of those who walks away.

So, a marvellous collection and both worthy addition to a fan’s library and an excellent jumping-on point for those new to Le Guin’s work (I include the first volume in that as well, to get the full range of her writing).

Book details

ISBN: 9781473202863
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2012

The Unreal and the Real Volume 1: Where on Earth

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 3 stars

This is a difficult book for me to try and review, because le Guin’s writing is marvellous and I don’t want to put anyone off reading it, but I’m not really a fan of Literature-with-a-capital-L and that’s what most of these stories are. Mostly pure realism, often just slice of life and not really the plot-driven stories that I like.

So enjoy is probably the wrong word for me in describing these stories, but I very definitely did appreciate them. Le Guin is a master of her field and she can invoke a sense of place and of people with ease. I think her Orsinia stories are great for this, of which there are four in this collection, combining to tell a loose narrative about life in this fictional East European country. The last ‘story’ in the collection, Half Past Four is probably one of my favourites, even though it isn’t a single story. It’s actually eight vignettes featuring people with the same names and general life roles (older man with quite a lot of authority, older woman with less authority etc). In the introduction, le Guin explains how this came about as part of a writing workshop that she was leading. It’s interesting to see the different types of story that can be told with just four different character archetypes, but also how many themes emerge, linking the stories.

It’s not all realism, there are a few edged with magical realism or even SF, such as the rather grim The Diary of the Rose and the more whimsical Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight. I enjoyed Direction of the Road as well, but to say any more about it would spoil it.

So I’m glad that I’ve read this collection, just to get more of a feel of le Guin’s versatility and strength as a writer, but I think I’ll probably enjoy the second volume, which focuses more on her fantastical work, more.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473202832
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2012

Always Coming Home

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 3 stars

I very definitely admire and appreciate this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy it very much. This isn’t a novel, it’s written like a social science notebook, containing fragments of songs, stories, pictures and maps about a small community in California. What makes this different (possibly unique) is that the community doesn’t exist. It’s all a fragment of Le Guin’s mighty imagination. This is something you have to remind yourself of while reading, as it’s very easy to forget, in amongst the breadth and depth of the book.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s really for me. I found the book quite frustrating because of its structure and lack of narrative (even though I knew what to expect going in). I enjoyed Stone Telling’s story (which makes up a significant chunk of the book, split into three sections) but found myself skimming (or even skipping) other bits, especially the poetry.

Le Guin has obviously put so much work into the world, its back story and the people who populate the valley of the Na. Unfortunately, I’ve never been much for poetry, and that (along with ritual song) makes up a significant chunk of the narrative parts of the book (and, now that I come to think about it, the ‘back of the book’ sections as well). Those more appreciative of disjointed narrative, myth and sociology will get much more out of this than I did.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586073834
Publisher: Grafton
Year of publication: 1985

The Lathe of Heaven

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

George Orr’s dreams can change reality. This frightens him so much that he takes drugs to suppress his dreaming, and eventually ends up in therapy with Dr Haber, who sees him as a tool to make the world better. During one dream, George wakes up and now there has been a plague ten years ago that wipes out five sixths of the world’s population in order to ease overcrowding. Despite Haber’s best efforts, the other dreams aren’t much better, and George is less and less sure of who he is and the reality of the world around him.

For a fairly slim volume, this book has remarkable depth, or perhaps not so remarkable, considering the author. Le Guin picks up themes about identity, reality and responsibility that recur in her work and weaves them, her language always deft and often striking, into a gripping narrative of love, loss and redemption. A very thought-provoking piece of work from a wonderful author.

Book details

ISBN: 9780586038413
Publisher: Grafton Books
Year of publication: 1971

The Other Wind (Earthsea Cycle, #6)

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 5 stars

The final novel in the Earthsea sequence takes the series out on a high for me. I came to Earthsea fairly late, only reading the original trilogy a few years ago, followed fairly swiftly by Tehanu, which it’s safe to say I didn’t enjoy that much, at least, not for its story. I have no such reservations about The Other Wind. I think that this is the book that I wanted Tehanu to be, as it continues the story of the adopted daughter of Sparrowhawk and Tenar and brings it to a denouement, if not conclusion.

This felt like a good blend of traditional fantasy, in that it begins with a quest (albeit, the quest of the sorcerer Alder to find peace from dreams that are tormenting him) but you also gain the full benefit of Le Guin’s years of honing her art and philosophy.

Sparrowhawk, whose story is told in the original Earthsea trilogy, is a minor character in this novel, appearing only in the opening section and at the very end but he is someone who has finally found peace and is able to offer the benefit of his wisdom, if not his magic. We see much more of Tenar, Tehanu and king Lebannen but these characters are much more active than they were in Tehanu, ‘doing’ rather than just ‘being’, the opposite of which was a complaint I made about the previous novel.

The story itself is about beginnings and endings. About lost history and the circle of life; about life and death and the righting of ancient wrongs. This could quickly get very hard going, but Le Guin maintains a deftness of touch throughout and injects humour into unexpected places which both kept me on my toes and made me smile and sometimes laugh out loud.

A marvellous way to end the Earthsea sequence.

Book details

ISBN: 9781842552117
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
Year of publication: 2001

Tales From Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5)

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This is a collection of four long-ish short stories and one novella set in Le Guin’s Earthsea universe. The stories span the history of her world, and there are some notes about the history of Earthsea at the end of the book. I enjoyed all the stories in the collection, seeing more of Earthsea, particularly The Finder, the tale of the founding of the great School for wizards on Roke and On the High Marsh, a story set when Sparrowhawk was Archmage. The former is interesting for me because it fills in a degree of backstory that has been hinted at in the books, and the latter because it gives us a little more insight into Ged.

Dragonfly is the novella at the end that bridges Tehanu and The Other Wind, the latter of which I’m now quite anxious to read. It’s set sometime just after the events of Tehanu and tells of the first woman to arrive at Roke to study magic for centuries, and hints that her entry will shake the world.

I enjoyed the style of storytelling in this book. It touches on the themes relating to gender and power that Le Guin started to explore in Tehanu, but all the stories have more of a, well, story, to them and she doesn’t seem quite so angry towards her characters any more. A good read for fans of Earthsea, although best read after the first four novels in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781842552148
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
Year of publication: 2001

Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 3 stars

I’m really not sure what to make of this book. Written many years after the original Earthsea trilogy, it continues the story of Tenar, the priestess that Sparrowhawk rescues from the Tombs of Atuan in the second book. Tenar has taken to a simple life as a farmer’s wife, and now widow, and spends time musing on what it means to be a woman. She takes in a young girl, Therru, who has been cruelly abused by her parents and then has to look after the spent Sparrowhawk, after he returns from the events at the end of The Farthest Shore.

This book feels like a book of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. There is none of the action or quests that characterises most fantasy, not to mention the original trilogy. This was written when Le Guin was discovering feminism, and it’s really a slow story of a woman and all that entails. It slightly frustrated me that there seemed to be a story in there, that of Therru, but it was never properly explored. Even by the end, Therru’s story remains mostly untold. Also, Tenar’s passivity was also frustrating, with things happening to her, rather than her actively doing anything.

Some reviews have decried the changes to Sparrowhawk’s character in this book, but given everything that he’s gone through, I can’t accept that as valid. I think that a man like Sparrowhawk would go through the emotional changes that Le Guin describes here and think that they work in the story.

I’d recommend this book, perhaps, as providing more background and detail on the world of Earthsea, but not for the story itself.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140348026
Publisher: Puffin
Year of publication: 1990

The Earthsea Trilogy

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 3 stars

A Wizard of Earthsea

The boy Sparrowhawk leaves his home of Gont and travels to the Island of the Wise to learn wizardry, but in his youth and arrogance he accidentally unleashes a great evil on the world which he must set right. I quite enjoyed this book, especially the use of magic of names, but felt that the language was somewhat forced. It felt sort of forced-Tolkien-ian and jarred a little bit for me.

The Tombs of Atuan

In this one, Sparrowhawk travels to the island of Atuan to try and retrieve the lost half of a great ring said to be able to bring peace to the whole of Earthsea. I liked this better than Wizard. The writing felt more assured and LeGuin seemed to have found her feet and was more assured. I also liked the character of the priestess Tenar and how her plight was handled.

The Farthest Shore

The final book of the Earthsea trilogy sees Sparrowhawk and the young prince Arren set out to find the cause of the malaise that is draining the will of the people and drawing magic out of the world. This one felt bleak from the start and it continued in that vein. It’s a great adventure story, spanning great chunks of the world of Earthsea and the final confrontation is appropriately apocalyptic and bittersweet.

In all, I’m glad I’ve read these books now and wish I had read them when I was younger and they may have made more of an impression on me. I think that the middle book was my favourite, having a less irritating Sparrowhawk than the first and less bleakness than the third, it was the Goldilocks book :).

Book details

ISBN: 9780140050936
Publisher: Penguin Books Limited
Year of publication: 1972

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