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Unlocking the Air and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin

Review by Mike 2004-04-03

Iíve been a big Le Guin fan for many years, counting her Earthsea and Hainish novels among my favorite books of all time. However, with the exception of Four Ways to Forgiveness Iíve avoided her short story collections. The reason is simple Ė I generally find it difficult to really enjoy stories that are only 3-15 pages long. There is just not enough substance for me to get into the characters, and obviously not enough time for a plot to develop. It just feels too much like reading fragments.

Unlocking the Air contains 18 stories that according to Le Guin herself fall into the following genres Ė plain realism, magical realism (=fantasy) or surrealism. I was a bit skeptical when I picked the book up, since Iíve always thought that Le Guinís strength is her ability to develop intriguing alien cultures and deal with their problems. How does her writing work in reality?

Not as well as I had hoped. To my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed one of the shortest stories (The Creatures on My Mind), and one of the ďplain realĒ ones (Standing Ground), but overall I found many of the stories interesting, but in a dry, detached way. They just didnít grip me as Iím used to when reading Le Guinís novels.

Luckily, her writing works much better when there is some magical or abnormal element present. Daddyís Big Girl is an excellent, moving story, while Ether, OR got me hooked because of the relations between the inhabitants and its general otherworldliness. I also enjoyed the more traditional fantasies Olders and The Poacher.

Overall Unlocking the Air and Other Stories was something of a disappointment for me. Despite a few glimmers of Le Guinís normal brilliance I found the majority of the stories very well written, but lacking that extra something to make them truly great.

3.75 amulets.

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