A companion novel to Le Guin's GIFTS, VOICES looks in on the life of a teen growing up in a city controlled by an enemy people. Memer has never known a life when hostile soldiers didn't patrol the streets and the possession of a book was not a crime punishable by death. The invading army believes that written words are evil, and that the city of Ansul is full of demons. But Memer knows that the Waylord, the man who raised her after her mother's death, has a hidden library in his house. There, he teaches her to read, and then, to use her understanding to help the city face its greatest crisis.
For a novel that has a lot to do with story-telling and reading, VOICES has more action and excitement than readers might expect. The arrival of Orrec, a great storyteller (and the narrator of GIFTS), rekindles the courage of Ansul's people, and they attempt to rebel against their oppressors. Memer finds herself caught in the middle, torn between her loyalty to the Waylord, who wishes to find a peaceful solution, and her hatred for the soldiers who destroyed so many things that she treasured. With many twists and turns along the way, VOICES delivers a conclusion that is both satisfying and unpredictable.
Perhaps the strongest element of the novel, however, is the way it moves from black and white to shades of gray. Orrec believes that all people have some good in them, and as Memer is forced to get to know the invaders she despises, she realizes that they are not all terrible and cruel. Some of them are simply different, and unable to understand her way of life. The message seems to be that it is far better to reach an understanding with others, even if you dislike them, than to take revenge. In a time when cultural and religious clashes make news almost every day, this should hit home with many readers.
VOICES is not a perfect book. It slows down a little more than I'd have liked before reaching its conclusion, and Memer was not as active in those events as I expect from a main character. But those flaws are minor compared to everything else about the novel: the distinctive setting and culture, the vivid language and personalities, and a voice that suggests, softly, without preaching, that there is more than one way to win a war.
Reviewed by: Lynn Crow