Ursula K Le Guin is one of my favorite writers, mostly because of her ability to create a fusion of archetypal stories with interesting phylosopical dilemmas. The City of Illusions, one of her Heinish Cycle of novels; is just that, with a blend of some fantasy elements as well. In general, the book could be an action/adventure, or quest novel, but it is also a quest for one’s identity, the question of how much our past defines us and what we are when our new life and our old life clash, and start to mercilessly pull us each in its own direction.
One thing that really caught me off guard and really impressed me, is just how good of a liar Ursula K Le Guin is. When I say that I don’t mean it in a usual “All Fiction is a Lie”, but in the sense that she knows how to manipulate you, leading you on to believe something, then the opposite thing and eventually leaving you stuck between two, or multiple versions of the truth, struggling to decide which one you should believe or hold true.
The hero of our story is a nameless humanoid. He looks perfectly like any other human male, except for his eyes. The eyes are almost cat like, both in color, a golden yellow and in their shape. He is also an amnesiac, a proper tabula rasa. A bunch of forest people find him, take him in and after figuring out, with the help of some telekinetic abilities that his mind/memories have been shattered, they decide to raise him as their own. They also name him Falk. He spends a number of years with them, trying to become of one them, but slowly realizing that he could not, in fact, be truly one of them. There are questions about himself that plague him. He loves one of the chef’s daughters, but with some hints of her father, realizes that they cannot be together. So he decides to take his destiny in his own hands, travel to the city of Es Toch, where he hopes the answers will be found.
But along the way he needs to be very wary of the Shing. The forest people fear the Shing. They have different theories of what they are. Some think them myths , other a fierce and frightening reality. But one of the motifs that overlaps among all the stories that he heard about the Shing is. He asks the chief’s daughter if she will wait for him, but she, with immense pain, replies that she can’t. She knows that going outside the Forest will change him, that he will become a different person.
In a sense, the story reminds me of the Epic of Gilgamesh, especially the character of Enkidu. Like Enkidu, Falk will learn what evil is, what sex is, what foods hurt and what foods delight him. And finally he will know the price of true knowledge. But where their characters diverge is towards final third of the novel. Falk will be faced with a lot of versions of his is reality. He will need to choose between them, and risk losing everything he currently is, picking between who he is now, and the potential of reverting to who his was before the forest people found him. The biggest risk, of course, is that he has no guarantee that his past version actually exists in the first place.