by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt, 2006, ISBN 0-15-205678-5
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This is a YA novel set in the same world as Le Guin’s earlier Gifts, and Orrec and Gry, from the previous book, do figure in the story. The story is completely separate, though, and it’s not necessary to have read that one in order to read this.
Memer is a young girl growing up in a city under occupation. Ansul was previously a city of learning and culture; the conquerors have looted the university and destroyed all the books in the city. Writing is demonic, because it takes words, the breath of Atth, the Alds’ god, and traps it. Memer’s household, Galvamand, was one of the leading households of the city before the Alds arrived, one of the most learned households, and a bit more than that, as we and Memer gradually learn. The house has a secret room, where some of Ansul’s books have been preserved, and the head of the household, Sulter Galva, teaches Memer to read. It’s the one bright spot in a hard and impoverished life, and for everyone’s safety they keep it secret even from the rest of their own household.
Two things upset this precarious stability. One day when she’s out doing the marketing, trying to avoid the notice of the Ald soldiers who can be capriciously violent, Memer witnesses the arrival of a Maker, a storyteller—Orrec, with Gry, and a pet lion they’ve acquired. Because of the Alds’ ban on books, and because both Alds and the citizens of Ansul greatly admire storytellers, Orrec’s arrival would have been a major event even if the lion hadn’t panicked one of the soldiers’ horses. Memer, with great presence of mind and a sense that the god of luck has taken charge of her for the day, manages to get control of the horse before it runs anyone down. In the aftermath of this, Orrec and Gry are invited to stay at Galvamand while they’re in Ansul. Since Orrec has been invited to perform for the Gand Ioratth, the Ald commander, this brings Memer into closer contact with the occupiers than she has ever experienced.
The second disruptive force is that some of the other formerly-prominent citizens of Ansul are plotting a rebellion against the Alds, and they’re consulting Sulter Galva, even though he won’t commit to taking part and isn’t convinced it’s wise to make the attempt.
Orrec and Gry offer to take Memer with them for Orrec’s performances for the Gand, and despite her own reluctance, Sulter encourages this, both so she’ll hear his best material, and so she’ll learn more about the Alds. Memer becomes one of the few people in the city with contacts on both sides. Almost against her will she starts to learn both more about the Alds, and more about the history of her own city. When word arrives that the Alds’ Gand of Gands has died, and political changes are coming that could have major repercussions for Ansul, even while the plans for rebellion are coming to a head, Memer is forced into a critical role in the crisis.