A warlike desert people, the Alds, have invaded the once-peaceful city, which used to be known as Ansul the Wise and Beautiful. The young heroine of the book, Memer, is the daughter of an Ansul woman and an Ald attacker. Although her mother is now dead, she has survived in the house of Galvamand, where her mother used to work for one of the city’s wise Waylords. Galvamand holds a secret: a hidden room, housing a precious library, including many volumes rescued during the siege. Only the Waylord and Memer can enter it and they act as keepers for the city’s history and hopes, securing books which the people continue to bring to them.
When two foreigners arrive the scene is set for another upheaval, but this time a more joyous one. Orrec is a storyteller and his wife, Gry, can communicate with animals. Soon the pair are brought to the attention of the Gand, ruler of the Alds, setting in motion a train of events which leads to the city’s partial liberation as the transformative Word releases a new spirit of hope and defiance. Memer as a Reader, vessel for the ancient Oracle and interpreter of old wisdoms, is pivotal in the city’s destiny.
Voices breathes authority: it reads as though Le Guin is transcribing rather than inventing, so beautifully are the details of her world invoked. And, in Memer, whose name invokes her task as guardian of Ansul’s heritage, she has given readers a sensitive, yet powerful heroine. Ursula Le Guin has played productively with gender and gender-relations in many of her books and in Memer and in Gry has created two women whose femininity encompasses a fierce independence, creativity and courage.
Without ever resorting to crude didacticism, the book is an inspiring commentary on the troubled contemporary world. The narrative demonstrates the limitations of a rigidly antithetical belief system and demonstrates its dangerous kinship with fanaticism. Storytelling and books, with their multiplicity of viewpoints, provide a corrective. Le Guin’s marvellous fable shows how education, particularly the lessons of history and poetry, can release not only an oppressed people, but also potentially their oppressors. An inspirational book.