by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt Books Young Adult Fantasy
Review by Nancy L. Horner
“I could make my city of free men, but what’s the good of freedom to the ignorant? What’s freedom itself but the power of the mind to learn what it needs and think what it likes? Ah, even if your body’s chained, if you have the thoughts of the philosophers and the words of the poets in your head, you can be free of your chains, and walk among the great!” [p.265]
Gavir and Sallo, brother and sister, were taken from the Marsh Land and made slaves in the house of Arcamand while quite young. Powers begins when Gav is 11 and Sallo 13. Raised in the city of Etra with the children of both the Arcamand house and the other young slaves of Arcamand, they are schooled for specific purposes and lead a comfortable, fairly privileged life for slaves.
Gavir has two special powers: a photographic memory and the ability to see into the future. However, he often confuses real memories with “remembered” visions of the future and Sallo wisely advises him not to tell anyone about this special gift, knowing it will make him even more outcast than he already is, as a slave and scholar.
When tragedy strikes, Gav realizes that he has been raised to trust but can only expect betrayal in slavery and runs away to find his people, his freedom, hopefully the ability to control his special powers. So begins a young adult saga that is often slow but becomes more addictive with each step of the hero’s journey.
Fantasies are not a typical genre read for me, and my reasoning is probably a little strange: an entire set of unusual names tend to annoy me, particularly if they’re long and it’s difficult to figure out how to pronounce them, thus slowing down the reading. That’s irritating to me and detracts from my enjoyment level. I read a pretty wide variety, though, and I’m always willing to try something new. Ursula Le Guin has been on my mental list of authors to someday give a whirl and I will always jump at the chance to review a book written by a known name whose work I haven’t yet read.
Powers was a decent novel to begin with. I had a difficult time getting into this story, at first, because it’s an epic and things happen slowly, although it can be exciting, at times. There is also a large “cast” and when I found a page in which the children were all described briefly within only a few paragraphs, I marked the page for frequent returns. Having a quick reference to the original characters (many more are introduced throughout Gav’s travels) as well as a map upon which to trace the hero’s path --which is included within the opening pages-- was not so much helpful as necessary. Otherwise, I would have been lost. I should add that the names are simple and the pronunciation obvious; there are simply a large number of them.
Once I reached the point that I had a guide to help me with the characters, the reading improved, but Powers is never a quick-paced novel. There are tense moments and danger is often at Gav’s heels. There is also a great deal of detail of everyday life in the unique fantasy world in which Powers is set. Those who are accustomed to fantasy may find that the book is typical; I can’t say, since I’ve read very few. All I can tell you is that I liked Gav and I found his world very believable. During times of tragedy, it was easy to empathize with the hero; to understand his emotions and motivation came naturally. In the emotional build-up, the creativity of a believable world, and comfortable dialogue, the author showed exceptional skill.
Powers is a young adult novel with some very grown-up themes and best suited to older teenager and adults, in my opinion. Beautifully written, slowly but steadily paced and worth the time. I consider it a slightly above-average read only because I personally prefer a story that moves more quickly, but for those who love fantasy, thick books, epics and drama, Powers is excellent.