The story is set a few centuries into the future. Humans have begun colonizing space and at some point, an Australia-like prison planet named Victoria was set aside for the repatriation of convicts and their families. Although by the novel's beginning this prison colony status was now firmly in the past, the planet is ruled by a rigid hierarchy, while the planet's population is divided into two symbiotic yet troubled groups, the farmers of Shantih and the urban city dwellers. Into this maelstrom of social and cultural divides and suspicions is raised a young girl named Luz. She ends up representing her namesake, the light that is shown on the pettiness and corruption that are inherent in political manners.
Le Guin tells her story and those surrounding Luz in a simple, clear narrative that manages to avoid becoming too condescending in its attempt to reach a younger audience while also keeping the story grounded on a level that preteens and teens could understand easily. Take for instance Luz's rejection of compromising with the authorities:
Here Le Guin states baldly, through her young protagonist Luz, notions of a pacifist anarchism that she has raised in several of her adult-oriented novels, particularly The Dispossessed. But due to the brevity of The Eye of the Heron (it is 178 pages full of wide margins and large font) and to its relatively simple construction, the full impact of passages such as this is much less than what it might have been if the subject were treated similar to those of her adult SF novels. This is not to say that The Eye of the Heron is a shallow, polemical novel, although it certainly does not contain the depths found in several of her other writings, but rather that the nature of the story being told does not correlate well with some of the themes Le Guin wanted to explore here. The result is a short, vaguely interesting novel that has the unfortunate status of being lesser in comparison to her longer, more well-developed works. The Eye of the Heron is worth reading, but it is far from Le Guin at her best.
"Where would that be?" Andre said, his voice patient again, ironic and miserable.
"Anywhere! Farther east, into the forests. Or southeast. Or south, down the coast, down past where the trawlers go - there must be other bays, other town sites! This is a whole continent, a whole world. Why do we have to stay here, here, huddled up here, destroying each other? You've been in the wilderness, you and Lev and the others, you know what it's like - "
"Yes. I do."
"You came back. Why must you come back? Why couldn't people just go, not too many of them all at once, but just go, at night, and go on; maybe a few should go ahead and make stopping-places with supplies; but you don't leave a trail, any trail. You just go. Far! And when you've gone a hundred kilometers, or five hundred, or a thousand, and you find a good place, you stop, and make a settlement. A new place. Alone."
"It's not - it breaks the community, Luz," Andre said. "It would be...running away."
"Oh," Luz said, and her eyes shone with anger. "Running away! You crawl into Marquez's trap in the South Valley and call that standing firm! You talk about choice and freedom - The world, the whole world is there for you to live in and be free, and that would be running away! From what? To what? Maybe we can't be free, maybe people always take themselves with themselves, but at least you can try. What was your Long March for? What makes you think it ever ended?" (pp. 154-155)