Ursula K Le Guin has always been fascinated by alternate worlds and especially alternate societies. Many of her fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories have been set in detailed and original worlds built up over the course of the stories. With Always Coming Home she has taken a different approach to this process. Instead of explaining the society and its environment through the course of the story (and admittedly also through occasional diversions into lecture) here the setting takes up the majority of the book. The novel is more to illustrate the setting than the other way round.
Much of the book is concerned with explaining the culture, lands and world of a fictional people called the Kesh. They live in a mediterranean-climate river valley in northern California. The world is one of the far future, some thousands of years from now, in which natural and man-made disasters have devastated human civilzation as we understand it. People are now rural and parochial, the old industrial era now no more than legend and bad memory.
The detail of the setting is astounding. The songs, art, technology, beliefs, rituals etc. of the Kesh are all treated with. Their culture is based around a metaphorical conception of the world, which is far too complex to explain here (read, and re-read, the book). It takes a while to understand the Kesh as their society is so unlike our industrial capitalist one. They do have a strong Native American flavour, but think Iroquois rather than Apache.
The novel itself, which is actually just the longest of a number of stories, serves to illustrate the setting by way of the learning of the central character and the contrast with a very different culture in the Kesh's world.
This is not an easy book to read, it takes time and patience to get to grips with. There is a lot of pleasure to be had though in coming to understand the setting. If you like to read history, sociology, anthropology etc. as well as just fiction though you will love the intellectual depth and sophistication of this work.
It's rather difficult for me to give a rating on this book, since it's so unlike other novels. Certainly it's a work of immense skill, and develops further Le Guin's concepts of societies founded on something other than the pursuit of wealth and power. Whether you think her society realistic or not (I have to say I never quite believed the communistic society in her novel The Dispossessed) you can still enjoy and admire it. Overall it's got to get the five stars.