Wednesday, December 26, 2018

City of Illusions

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 12/25/2018, Reviewed 12/26/2018
4 stars

I had trouble rating this book.  It’s a very complex short novel, the third in the Hainish Cycle.  It follows a man who has lost his memory.  It’s an interesting way to write a story about a dystopian Earth, by following his journey across what’s left of North America.  We get to discover its secrets and complexities through the main characters own discovery.  It was very confusing at first, but slowly came together, culminating in an exciting climax.  I didn’t really enjoy it until the end, when it all came together and made sense.  Then it blew my mind.

Falk’s on Earth, basically being raised by a forest dwelling clan.  They teach him the language and their culture over six years.  But he longs to get back the time that he lost.  As I mentioned above, Earth is a dystopia and seems to be controlled by a conquering group called the Shing.  It’s not clear if they are human or alien, and it is not revealed until the end.  But Falk decides to travel to their main city, Es Toch to find out who he is, or was.  He travels the country, eventually with a female companion, trying to avoid other barbarian clans who eschew strangers.  Eventually he completes the journey, only to find out that the truth is stranger than anything he imagined.

The description of Earth as a dystopia is slowly revealed as he travels the country.  I have to say it was a brilliant idea to introduce us to the Earth of the future this way.  But at the same time, it was confusing.  However, it is also confusing to Falk, so it was revealed to us the way he was experiencing it.  He wasn’t the narrator, but the narration played it out with the same ambiguity as Falk saw it.  It was also hard to be trusting in the story because Falk was warned not to trust anyone or anything.  Still, he trusts one woman to journey with him, and even that relationship is tenuous.

When he gets to Es Toch, he meets Orry, a young man who claims to have travelled with him from a distant planet.  I won’t go more into the details of that plot point because it reveals too much.  But I bring it up because I liked Orry.  You get the sense he has Stockholm Syndrome, and uses the Shing’s hallucinogenic drug to cope with his life over the past six years.  He’s young, naïve, and seems to worship Falk.  And even though he’s trusting of the Shing, you feel like he’s the only one who seems authentic in this whole city of illusions. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I toyed with giving it three, but the ending clinched it for four.  It’s a heart pounding reveal that had me riveted.  It helps to have read the previous book, Planet of Exile, but it is not required.  It just gives a little background for the ending.  It’s easy to see the progress of Le Guin’s prose in these first three books of the Hainish Cycle and then makes the dramatic leap to the brilliant Left Hand of Darkness a few years later. 

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