The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness has been on my to-be-read list for some time.  I finally picked it up at the library when I stopped by on a whim, and I’m  glad I did.

It’s fantastic. I’ve only read it once (so far) and it’s already on my mainstream favorites list.

It was a bit of a slow starter for me, but that didn’t last long at all. It took me a few pages to really start paying attention as well, but that’s about when it really started to grab my interest. I like stories where the details matter, where you have to watch what’s going on and fit the facts together as the story progresses, and Le Guin certainly delivered.

There were some slower spots–Orgoreyn wasn’t all that exciting a place–but the pieces and parts kept coming together, moving the whole story relentlessly forward, and Orgoreyn was notable in that its were the relationship between Ai and Estraven picked back up and just got more and more interesting.  The dynamic between them (as almost dual protagonists) evolves constantly, and as it does, we learn more and more about each.  Most obviously, Le Guin reveals Estraven’s history and character (and the Gethenians as a whole) in ever-increasing detail even while the character himself develops, revealing deeper layers yet.  I also admired the way that Gethenian groups and nations are portrayed distinctively enough to avoid a monocultural world, yet there is a unifying cultural foundation based on biology, history, and environment–and despite their notable differences from Ai’s culture (and presumably the rest of the Ekumen), they’re still tied together by the threads of common humanity. Moreover, Le Guin handled it smoothly, integrating everything into a tight, consistent whole that lends it solid believability despite the many differences from the familiar and expected.

If I had to give a criticism, I’d say that the side characters frequently seem rather similar to one another in personality, particularly once the story moves out of Karhide, though motivations are distinguished well enough. Some of the events did seem rather abrupt,  in the sense that they left me a little puzzled, rather than surprised, that they happened at the points they do. Even so, they make sense in the context of the characters and settings, and the story being told, and I suspect a lot of that may have simply been that I was missing nuance in the process of absorbing a compact, detailed story while always hurrying to turn the page and find out what happens next.

I’m keen to read this book again now that I’ve taken in the details one time through, to see what I missed and put it all back together, and to really study the finer points of the story and characters and their implications. I’ll definitely be picking up the others in the cycle as well. Needless to say, I recommend it highly.

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