Gavir is a slave in the city-state of Etra. He and his sister were captured from the Marsh people, who are rumored to have special powers. Gavir, for example, has an incredible memory, and can even, on rare occasions, remember the future. As he narrates his childhood, he explains his unquestioning loyalty to his owners, who give him an education, but the abuses of the system are apparent from early on. His sister is given to one of his master’s sons as a concubine, while another of the sons murders another slave without punishment.
Gavir eventually runs away, and we get a series of episodic adventures. He joins a band of runaways, and, again, we begin to see the inequalities and sexual abuse within their social system. In the book’s most interesting section, Gavir returns to his people’s homelands in the Marshes. In Etra, we get the typical faux-medieval society, but in the Marshes, LeGuin gets to use her anthropological talents. The Marsh people fish for subsistence and practice strict separation of the sexes. LeGuin manages to make it seem fairly idyllic while also making it clear that it’s far from perfect and that Gavir does not belong.
A lot of the ethnographic details are nice, and LeGuin’s prose flows as nicely as ever. LeGuin never talks down to her YA audience; the proceedings are very dark and some of the material on gender is fairly subtle. The novel eschews some of the expected dramatic resolutions. We don’t get final confrontations between Gavir and many of his oppressors, or a touching reunion with his biological parents. And, Gavir really uses his powers – the fact that he has a printed book makes more of a difference to the plot than the fact that he can occasionally see the future. On one hand, I like that LeGuin avoids clichés. On the other hand, the novel can feel a little aimless, and some of the early characters don’t have much point in the long-run.
I feel like I’m becoming a broken record with these Nebula winners. Once again, this was a decent book that I enjoyed, but I don’t think it would’ve been my choice for the best novel of the year. That said, LeGuin’s talents are still clear, and I can’t think of a writer more deserving of the record for most novel Nebulas.