City of Illusions

CityofIllusionsUrsula K. Le Guin favors the motif of the solitary journey. I usually call it the ‘turn’ of the story for lack of a better name; usually about two-thirds into the novel the main character goes on a journey, usually alone, even if he or she encounters other people along the way. There is only one novel I have read by Le Guin so far that does not follow this pattern. It happens often enough that I was surprised to find that in City of Illusions, Falk embarks on his journey in the second chapter.

I was not expecting to like City of Illusions as much as a I did. Yes, Le Guin is one of my all-time favorite authors, but her short novels tend to be not as good as her short stories or her longer novels, and so I came to City of Illusions with lower expectations. Usually the short novels are too short for her to really flesh out the world, and so it is more that she is exploring a certain idea than anything else, which, once you understand that, is perfectly okay. However, my copy of City of Illusions is deceptively small and it was not until I opened it and saw the teeny tiny print that I realized this was going to be a longer book than I thought it would be.

Falk is a man without a past, found in the wilderness by a forest tribe in the far-distant future on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Having no memory of who he is or even of language, the tribe takes him in and raises him as one of their own, for he is a man in all outward appearances but one, his yellow eyes, and because the prevailing Law on Earth is ‘Do not take life.’ Six years later, he leaves his adopted family and his home to seek out the one remaining city on Earth, Es Toch, also called the City of the Lie. It is a journey that will take him across a continent, to the end of the forest, across plains, deserts, and mountains, encountering all sorts of odd and bizarre people and beasts along the way. He goes in search of his name, his real name, and it is not what you expect. By happy circumstance, I happened to read Planet of Exile before reading City of Illusions—while both books can be read on their own, there is a connection between the two, and I was glad to see it when it appeared.

As usual, Le Guin’s prose does not disappoint:

Hope is a slighter, tougher thing even than trust, he thought, pacing his room as the soundless, vague lightning flashed overhead. In a good season one trusts life; in a bad season one only hopes. But they are of the same essence: they are the mind’s indispensable relationship with other minds, with the world, and with time. Without trust, a man lives, but not a human life; without hope, he dies. When there is no relationship, where hands to not touch, emotion atrophies in void and intelligence goes sterile and obsessed.

I have but one more Le Guin book in my meager library (three boxes, but who’s counting?). Once I lift my embargo on buying more books, I think some more books by Le Guin will be in order.

2 thoughts on “City of Illusions

  1. Lola says:

    This reminds me of a story I keep meaning to tell you– my last night in Poland, I got into a discussion with the owner of the language school I was at about Harry Potter vs. Le Guin. He *loved* Le Guin and thought HP was foolish and pointless. I argued that I loved them both and read them for very different reasons, and even though they have similarities in genre I don’t really consider them to be comparable at all. I’m curious to know what you think 😉

    It was weird, though, talking to someone who had read these books in translation, when I always feel like I’m the one hobbled by being an english speaker, having to read so many great works in a language they weren’t meant for. I forget that in some instances, I’m lucky.


    • Chera says:

      I don’t think UKL and JKR are very comparable either. You could, perhaps, compare UKL’s young adult fantasy (Earthsea and Annals of the Western Shore)—actually, there is a line about wizards transforming themselves into dolphins in A Wizard of Earthsea that I think JKR borrowed from UKL, or was influenced by, because JKR includes almost the exact thought when talking about animagi. But UKL mostly writes science fiction aimed for adults. Both are good. I would say UKL is better, in terms of craft, but that doesn’t mean Harry Potter is foolish and pointless. There is a LOT to be gleaned from Harry Potter. It’s apples and oranges, really.


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