Reviewed in the United States on October 29, 2018
Powers is billed as the third book in the Annals of the Western Shore, but don’t let that put you off. Apart from being set in the same invented world and with a light crossover of characters, the books are independent stories and can be read in any order.
Gavir is an eleven-year old slave boy at the beginning of the story. He is one of the Marsh People, which means he is darker skinned than the other people in his life, apart from his older sister, Sallo. Sallo and Gavir were taken when they were small children, too small to have any memory of their former lives. Now they are slaves in the household of a wealthy family in the city-state of Etra. Gavir is content with his life. He is not a farm slave, laboring in the fields, but a house slave, living in comfort with an enlightened master and his family. In this house, slaves are not beaten or tortured. Slave children play with and are educated alongside the children of the Family. Gavir himself is a promising little scholar, who is being groomed to take over the job of teacher to the household once the slave who currently holds that post grows too old to carry on.
Gavir also has powers, hence the title, powers he barely understands himself. The first is that he has occasional visions, brief glimpses of the future. Gavir calls this “remembering,” in the sense of remembering things that have not yet taken place, though Gavir spends most of the story puzzling over what use this power might have, if any.
The invented world in which the story takes place and Gavir’s visions are the only real fantasy elements in this novel, which otherwise could be taken as an historical tale set in the ancient Mediterranean world. Oh, but wait! Gavir has one other power: a photographic memory, although the book never describes it in those words. It’s a phenomenon we are familiar with in our time, but surely would seem magical to those living in a less advanced culture, and indeed it does to Gavir and the people who know him.
The novel follows Gavir for the next six years of his life, until he’s seventeen. His world seems cozy and secure at first, with his future as a teacher in the household of a kindly master an inviting one. But, alas for Gavir, it is not to be. First, a terrible injustice turns Gavir’s world upside down and compels him to flee his master and Etra, and wander the Western Shore in constant danger. For the relationship between master and slave, as Gavir comes to understand, is based not only on power, but also on trust. A slave must be able to trust the master, and if the master betrays the slave, well, even a slave is capable of betrayal in return.
Gavir’s wanderings take him deep into a forest, where he discovers the legends he has heard are true: hidden deep in the wood is a community of escaped slaves, who live in freedom, as equals. Gavir is welcomed among them. He can recite from memory many of the long poems and tales of old for this band of largely illiterate and isolated ex-slaves, which soon makes him a valued and respected member of the community. But in time, there is another injustice, and Gavir must flee again. He makes his way to the marshes, where he reconnects with his clan and his family among the Marsh People. But the Marsh People are an isolated folk with a very different culture. Gavir finds they do not understand him and he cannot understand them. “The slave takers did not only take me from my people,” he muses. “They took my people from me.”
During his stay with the Marsh People, a vision tells him that his former owners do not believe he is dead, as he had hoped, but in fact a slave catcher is tracking him. Gavir now must leave his people, in the hope he can find a place for himself in this world, before the slave catcher has his vengeance. Perhaps Gavir might even at last find a use for his powers.
You expect elegantly crafted prose from Le Guin, and she does not disappoint here. Powers is largely a character study, as we watch Gavir grow from a naive, hopeful tween forced to become a man all too soon in reaction to the harsh world he lives in. And, led along by Le Guin’s sure hand, we grow right along with him. I had the misfortune of reading the climax of Gavir’s story late at night and found myself forced to keep reading into the small hours of the morning as my heart pounded in fear for Gavir as the slave catcher closes in, and ended the story the same way Gavir did—with tears in my eyes.
Powers is a young adult novel in every sense. It is literally the story of growing up. We can all, like Gavir, recall our sojourn from naive child to disillusioned young adult, wondering all the while what place, if any, this disappointing world holds for us, and so readers of any age can find in him some of our own formative experiences. Gavir’s world is a difficult world, but a textured one. There are no black knights, or white ones, just people making their way through tough circumstances, some more admirably than others. This is a long book, for Gavir has a long journey, but that merely means he has well earned his tears of joy on the final page. Journey by his side, and you will earn yours along with him.