Left Hand of Darkness, The

by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)

8/10

The justifiable classic is a fascinating interplanetary political drama with flourishes of pure adventure — all of that’s enough to keep it compelling even before you factor in the astonishingly original premise of gender-nullification, fostering gratifying commentary on gender, patriotism and society.

As with Le Guin’s other internationally acclaimed novel, The Dispossessed, this one focuses at least as much on “concept + ideas” as it does story, and with the same impressive-while-less-than-absolutely-satisfying results. Ai and Estraven are two memorable characters and you feel for them, but most of the book’s value comes from their dialogues and inner monologues.

The world-building is top-notch and consistently captivating, especially with a planet peopled by biological androgynes. But to put it frankly: after three novels I have yet to see evidence that Le Guin is capable of strong action sequences. The climax here is woefully under-narrated and is over in less than a page. While the bones of the conclusion are fulfilling, its execution was lacking.

So ultimately I’m finding that I admire the hell out of Le Guin for her penetrating ideas and metaphors, but she still feels vaguely incomplete as a novelist despite the uniqueness of her vision. I look forward to reading more of her to either corroborate or refute this impression. Either way, her introduction to Left Hand is fantastic and worth reading by itself for any fans of sci-fi or aspiring writers.

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