Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Review - Powers

by Ursula K. Le Guin
2008 Nebula Winner for Best Novel

I was generally unimpressed with the nominees for the Nebula in the novel category this year. Three of them were YA books so, to put it politely, I was nowhere near their target audience. The other two felt like nominees more for their names than the books (I love Pratchett but I'll be the first to tell you that Making Money was not one of his best). Of all the nominees Powers was the one that I knew the least about. I knew the author and it was part of a YA fantasy series and that was it. Remembering my problems with almost everything Le Guin has written since 1975 I braced myself for the worst, flipped open the hideous cover, and started to read.

There is a young slave a pre-industrial city who has occasional visions of the future. He is being schooled so that as an adult he will be able to teach the household children but because of the schooling he gradually becomes more socially aware. Eventually a troubling event causes him to flee his masters and seek purpose.

Powers is the third book in a series. I have not read the previous two but there was nothing in this volume that was difficult to follow. Powers stands on its own easily even with a few things that were likely references to other books in the series.

The novel reminded me a lot of Le Guin's early work. That's a good thing. Unfortunately it feels like a watered down version of those early works. I suspect that has to do with the Young Adult target audience and I know that if I read this when I was twelve and reading those kinds of books I would have been much more interested.

The key to that is how moral ambuiguity and comparitive cultures are at the heart of the story. The protagonist wanders through many different locations and none of them are "perfect". This is in spite of a few of them being traditional environments for "ideal lifestyles" in SF (usually the bad novels where the author is promoting their own beliefs). There are few villains in the story. On the other hand there are a lot of characters shaped by their environment to be something inadvertantly destructive.

While he's surrounded by complex personalities the protagonist himself is a bland, generic, faultless hero cynically designed to appeal to the reader. His major "flaws" are that he's not athletic and is a sensitive soul. On the other hand he reads a lot, is kind to all living things, and strives to be normal. While he discovers moral complexity he is set apart from it. This might be effective for the bookish teen picking up the novel; as an adult who has seen this kind of thing too many times I was disinterested.

I can't say that I was excited by the plot either. While there are interesting moments it the story meandered quite a bit and didn't hold focus. The book becomes a repetition of wandering to a new place, liking it at first, seeing the flaws, and wandering off again. Toward the end Le Guin suddenly remembers that she had been developing a plot in the first quarter of the novel and resolves it quickly.

One aspect of YA books that always bothers me is that they're written for a much lower reading level than I enjoy. I recognize that this part of dealing with that market even though I am not part of it. The prose in Powers is simple, direct, and flat. I know that Le Guin can do better than this since even in her worst books I've found her prose to be pretty good.

What this adds up to is a book that isn't bad but it is not for me. It is not for adult SF fans who have literary tastes. If you enjoy light fantasy then it might hold a bit more appeal for you and I would not hesitate to give a copy of this to a kid looking for some fantasy. Of course I'd give them A Wizard of Earthsea first.