Orsinian Tales by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The cover of this one is a bit of a cheat. Orsinian Tales is a slender paperback I found lurking on one of my sister’s crowded bookshelves. The front features a tall, snug castle with a medieval town nestled at is base. It’s pretty clearly a stock image, though a case could be made that it illustrates the penultimate story in the collection. The author is Le Guin, and if you didn’t know who that is the cover helpfully points out she’s the author of the Earthsea Trilogy and the winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards. It’s clearly marketed as a fantasy, though to be fair a careful reader of the back cover would notice that these tales are explained as Le Guin bringing “to mainstream fiction all the power and enchantment” that have made her so well known for science fiction and fantasy. Be warned though, if you pick up this book hoping for the magic of Earthsea, you’re not going to find it in the way you expect.
This is a collection of Le Guin’s literary (“mainstream”) fiction. There aren’t dragons, old gods (despite what the cover says), spells, or enchantments of the ordinary, speculative kind. The stories in this sense are unexpectedly mundane. People grow up, fall in love, quarrel with their siblings, watch their country change, and have long conversations.
Yet to call this mundane or lacking magic because it’s not genre fantasy misses the point entirely. What Le Guin is doing here is something a lot deeper and more beautiful because of, not in spite of its everyday nature. She convinces you of the magic of her fiction—basically showing you the wellspring of her own speculative work—in stories that are straightforwardly not fantastic literature.
There are eleven stories in this collection, and they all loosely follow the history of a vague, eastern European country from the early days of Christianity to a long, indeterminate communist winter in a meandering, non-chronological fashion. None of them seem to explicitly fit together apart from their general locale, though there may have been deeper links that I missed. (Who was the defector of the very first story, and did the castle keep of the medieval murder reappear in the Lady of Moge?) None of them have any hint of science fiction or fantasy tropes. But all carry the magic of simple, real things lifted up and celebrated by the beauty and clarity of Le Guin’s prose.
She’s saying something important here, something she lays out most clearly in the final story of the collection, “Imaginary Countries.” Once upon a time, she seems to be telling us with these tales, stories were written simply to be beautiful. They didn’t have to have a hook or an unforeseen twist. They didn’t have to turn the world on its head or capture the reader with a completely unexpected concept or angle. They only had to be lovely and draw on a magic that was history and humanity itself.
These are what the stories in Orsinian Tales do, and they do it very well. They are stories with magic, but the magic is the deep and dangerous magic of the every day. Deep because it surrounds the characters she creates and dangerous because they’re all swimming in it, surrounded by it, and swept away. Dangerous because we’re in the midst of it as well, and we ignore it to our peril.
Sometimes fiction— especially fantasy— is passing through the looking glass. Le Guin doesn’t do that here. Instead she does something more difficult.
She opens a window.