He is a full-grown man, alone in dense forest, with no trail to show where he has come from and no memory to tell who or what he is. His eyes are not the eyes of a human. The forest people take him in and raise him almost as a child, teaching him to speak, training him in forest lore, giving him all the knowledge they have. But they could not solve the riddle of his past, and at last he has to set out on a perilous quest to find his true self - and a universe of danger.
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I normally do not read science fiction or fantasy, but this book sounded different. I have read a few Asimov and Bradbury novels and enjoyed them, so when I discovered this novel from a multiple winner of Hugo and Nebula awards and a Library of Congress "Living Legend" I decided to chance it, and I'm glad I did.
The language Ms. LeGuin uses is deceptively simple, but fully paints a picture of an earth I never imagined. I'm a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, whom I also think can paint an electric landscape with tiny little English words, and I found myself appreciating Ms. LeGuin's writing for much the same reason.
There was enough mystery in this quest story to keep me hooked, and enough intrigue to make me sorry to end the day's listening. I seldom had to "rewind" to re-establish my understanding, although there are a couple of places where great leaps are taken.
The narration was excellent, simply excellent. His voice carried her story. It ended up to be a fairly fast read for me, and that speaks well for the book. It is an adult book, and when I say it is a bit earthy, I am not referring to its science fiction base. I tend to be a bit conventional in my reading choices, but found this stretch from the conventional, for me, to be rewarding.
“You go to the place of the lie to find out the truth?”
Ursula K. Le Guin’s HAINISH CYCLE continues with City of Illusions, which I liked better than its predecessors, Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile. City of Illusions takes place on Earth sometimes in the far future after an alien invasion has killed off most of the people and has completely changed the Earth’s ecology, infrastructure, and geopolitical arrangement. There’s a large capital city run by an alien race called the Shing, but most of the humans are spread out and divided into small clusters in the hinterlands which have gone back to their natural state after Earth’s cities were destroyed. While there are futuristic technologies in the capital, the rest of the people live off the land without technological help and with only occasional glimpses of the advanced society that their ancestors knew before it decayed.
To prevent takeovers, the Shing do not allow the people to organize or even to communicate over long distances. If anyone attempts anything that threatens the government, they are arrested and, since the Shing do not allow the taking of human lives, they are “razed,” meaning their memories are wiped out. To keep humans subjugated, the Shing also use their powers to cast illusions and to lie with their minds, which is why their capitol city is called the City of Illusions.
Our story begins as a man with cat-like eyes wakes up in the wilderness and doesn’t know who or where he is. In fact, he doesn’t know anything — his mind is blank. His only potential clue is a gold ring he wears which tells him that he once belonged somewhere. When a wilderness family takes him in, they name him Falk and teach him how to be a man again (if he ever was a man — his eyes suggest at least some non-human genes). After several years, Falk decides to set out for the City of Illusions to find out who he is. Along the way he meets other types of people, experiences different cultures, and has some scary adventures. By the time he gets to the city, he has made a new life for himself, has made friends, has fallen in love, and has learned a lot about the world he lives in, but not any clues about himself.
When Falk meets the Shing in the City of Illusions, he discovers who he is, but he learns that he must choose between his old mostly unknown life and the new life he has been living for several years. He also learns that the aliens have a different story about what happened to Earth than the stories he has previously heard. It’s not easy to separate truth from lies or to know who can be trusted. Falk has some major dilemmas to resolve and some major choices to make.
The setting of City of Illusions — America’s ruined cities being gradually overtaken by forests — is appealing (reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s NEW SUN books) and so is Falk (especially when we find out who he is) who is developed better than the protagonists in the previous HAINISH CYCLE novels. It helps that Falk doesn’t need a backstory, so we’re not really expecting much there. Unfortunately, none of the other characters are particularly engaging and the villains seem inconsistent (e.g., their insistence that life is sacred doesn’t fit with their other beliefs and actions), but I enjoyed Falk’s travels and dilemmas nonetheless and I liked the ambiguous ending and how this story fills in some information we were left wondering about at the end of Planet of Exile. City of Illusions is short and fast-paced with Le Guin’s usual economy of words which I’ve always admired and which becomes more appreciated the more epic fantasy I read.
I listened to Blackstone Audio’s excellent production narrated by Stefan Rudnicki. City of Illusions refers to events that occurred in Planet of Exile and is sort of a sequel. It’s not necessary, but it’d be helpful to read that book first.