I was a little bit disappointed when I had heard that this recent book from LeGuin was a ‘children's book' – but I needn't have worried. It's just another one of those publishers' marketing ploys. This is definitely a story that can be appreciated by readers of any age.
It's a very bleak story, in many ways. It tells of two young people in a remote, backwards society. Life is harsh, they're dirt-poor, inbred, always violently feuding over the slightest of pretexts – and to make things worse, each of the tiny clans of this backcountry has a ‘supernatural' ‘gift' – each of which can be used for violence and ill. To avoid using a destructive force, the young man Orrec voluntarily gives up sight, while his best friend Gry flatly refuses to use her ability to ‘call' animals to have them be slaughtered at the hunt.
However, there seems to be little chance for the compassionate aspects of their natures to grow, considering the world that surrounds them, and the demands and sacrifices that their families ask for.
LeGuin, here, succeeds brilliantly at portraying the narrow, barren life of these Upland ‘tribes;' how the people themselves are not all evil, but how completely their way of life informs and circumscribes their existence – while at the same time letting the reader know that more exists in their world, just beyond these people's ability to comprehend. We see both the values and priorities of their daily life – but can also see how, from another perspective, those priorities are not merely pathetic but incredibly sad.
The book is dark, but insightful, and not wholly without hope.