With the recent publication of the third volume of the Annals of the Western Shore, I decided to go back to the start and re-read the first two and follow it up with the latest.
Gifts is the first book. It is narrated by Orrec Caspro son of his clan's leader. The clans of the uplands have uncanny powers, Gifts, at least if the family blood runs true, but Orrec's mother is not of the clan or even of the Uplands where the clans lead their isolated impoverished existence, feuding and farming. Orrec's Gift has gone awry, apparently uncontrollable, and it is the Gift of Unmaking - destructive, deadly and a threat to the neighbouring clans. Orrec goes blindfolded to protect those around him, for the Gift cannot operate without looking at that which is to be Unmade. Meanwhile his friend, Gry, whose clan Gift is that of calling animals, finds that she is Gifted indeed - but she cannot bring herself to call animals to the hunt. Training horses and dogs is useful but it is calling to the hunt that really provides income to her family.
Orrec and Gry grow up together and find themselves increasingly at odds with their families and the whole Uplands way of life, which brings tragedy to Orrec.
Gifts examines the relationship between parents and their children with particular regard to parents' expectations: It concludes that it would be better to support and encourage the talents that a child manifests, not those the parents have or want their child to have - which may be absent altogether. Trying to force parental will on the child might lead to total estrangement....
Another theme is the relationship between the Gifts as used by the clans and the clan way of life, which is full of poverty and fear. Gry suggests that there might be a link between the two - that there might be more constructive ways to use the Gifts that would in turn make life more peaceful and fulfilling.
It is no great leap (though it had to be suggested to me before I noticed) to believe that LeGuin is using the Gifts as an analogy with the general talents shown by humanity - engineering can be used for warmaking or peaceful purposes, the arts can be used to propagandise or enlighten. LeGuin would prefer we chose the constructive use of our talents.
As usual with LeGuin, one is left with plenty to think about, but as sometimes happens with her books, plot is almost an afterthought and the languid prose does not provide much drive either, so I cannot consider this volume to be top-notch by the exceptionally high standards she has set with books such as A Wizard of Earthsea, The Farthest Shore or The Left Hand of Darkness (among others). Nevertheless second-rate LeGuin is a goal most authors can strive for but never obtain.