22 January 2014

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin [book review]

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin
The Left Hand of Darkness
Written by Ursula LeGuin
Published by Orbit Books
Paperback - 248 pages
Published December 2012
Part of the Hodderscape Review Project

In a nutshell:

The Left Hand of Darkness is the mission of Genly Ai, a human envoy who has come to the planet called Winter. He tries to bring the planet into the fold of galactic enlightenment, but he’s an alien in a strange world. In a world where everyone has no gender, how do they react to the only man in the world?

What worked:

The crux of The Left Hand of Darkness is the issue of gender on the planet Winter, and LeGuin does a great job of showing how this affects the history and culture of the locals.

Throughout the book are snippets from their folklore and history that shows how kenning – the monthly cycle where the Gethians change from androgynous to single sex. This gives you a deeper understanding of how their society works and, more importantly, how different Genly is to the rest of them.

The world-building of Winter is also superb for such a short novel; the landscape has shaped the people around it and it’s a harsh environment that forces Genly to adapt to survive.

What didn't work:

My main bugbear with The Left Hand of Darkness is its pacing. This might stem from the fact that it was written 45 years ago; a different time for a different audience. That being said, there were only one or two brief moments of conflict or excitement in the story, with the rest of the novel plodding along slowly.

This is most evident during the 800-mile journey that Genly has to take along with his companion, Estraven. The journal-entry narration of this section drags the plot along and it becomes a little repetitive until you get to the climax.

In short:

I’d say that The Left Hand of Darkness is an important novel, for sure, and for anyone looking to read a sci-fi classic, look no further. Newcomers to the genre, or those who like to dip their tor into the water now and then (i.e. me) might find it dated and slow.

Would I recommend it?

I’d recommend The Left Hand of Darkness to those who enjoy old-school sci-fi, or someone looking for a story that takes a closer look at gender. I wasn't particularly taken by it, though, so sci-fi newbies might want to steer clear.

3 out of 5 stars

About Jamie
Jamie Gibbs is a life-long geek and leans towards anything with sorcery, dragons or obscure pop culture references.
You can follow him on his Google+ or Twitter profiles for a daily dose of fanboy discourse.


  1. I reread Wizard of Earthsea recently and found that a bit dated too. She's definitely a giant of the genre but like a lot of pioneers, her achievements have been somewhat eclipsed by the passage of time.

    Moody Writing

    1. It's a shame when it happens, but some types of narrative don't age well.

  2. The plodding, journey parts are what bog down the LOTR books for me, so I think I will steer clear. (The gender thing doesn't do it for me either.) Some of the older books are dated now, but still enjoyable.

    1. Same for me - LotR was insanely slow for me. It took me 10 years to finish Fellowship!

  3. Haven't read this one, but I could totally see how the pacing might feel slow compared to recent novels.


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