I believe this was le Guin’s first published novel, and I think it shows – it shares some themes with later novels, but the action is a bit jerky and occasionally confusing. (Also, the front cover makes it look a little bit too Masters of the Universe.) Nonetheless, it’s the first of the Hainish cycle which I generally adore, and I did enjoy it.
The book opens with the tale of Semley, who marries away from her family and comforts into an ancient but impoverished noble family. She determines to find an ancient necklace of the family, to restore some honour to them, and in doing so must have dealings with another, humanoid, race on her planet. To find the necklace they take her on a great adventure – to another world, although she doesn’t realise it – but her return is met with grief.
All of this is a prologue, and could easily pass as a short story in itself. Semley reminded me somewhat of Arwen, from LOTR, of what a continuation of Arwen’s story could have been. There’s certainly a LOTR/Celtic mythology feel to the different humanoid races on this world, and some of their interactions.
The rest of the story is about Rocannon, one of the people Semley met on her journey, and who is now directing an Ethnographic Survey on her home planet, many years later. Things go badly however when his ship is destroyed by unknown assailants, and all of a sudden he’s stuck on (to him) an exceedingly backward planet that might just have become the front line in a war the League has been anticipating for some time. He therefore has to deal with potential baddies being on this world as well as being cut off from all contact with his own people. This is, naturally, a difficult position to be in.
There’s action, there’s angst, there’s discoveries about some of the truths about the different humanoid races on the planet. Rocannon learns much about himself, as a leader and as a stranger and, most humbly, as a frail human who can actually learn things from seemingly backwards people.
It’s not as disturbing and earth-shattering as something like The Word for World is Forest, and I can imagine that an older le Guin might have added some more meaty stuff about gender or colonisation into the mix, which are just barely hinted at here. Still, like I said it’s an enjoyable enough story, and it’s largely very well written – there’s some beautiful prose. Interestingly this is one of the differences I noticed; this novel feels a bit more… poetic, perhaps, than many of her later novels, which while beautiful tend (to my mind) a bit more towards the sparse.