Well. I was wrong. I am SO glad that I re-read them. My original frustration with Gathering Blue was largely because it was not the direct sequel to The Giver that I was craving. Instead, it tells the parallel story of Kira, an orphan girl with a useless leg. Her handicap makes her useless to her brutal, primitive society, and therefore a group of citizens wants to leave her to the "beasts" to be devoured. But Kira (like Jonas in The Giver) has a special gift. Her gift is in her hands. When she sews, something miraculous happens. Her hands seem to move on their own, creating patterns that she was never taught. So the Council of her society takes her to live in their Edifice. Her first job is to repair the Singer's robe, which depicts the history of the world. When that job is complete, she will then be tasked with filling in the blank spaces--in essence, creating the future.
The Council has also provided housing for Thomas, a skilled woodworker, and Jo, a tyke (toddler) with an incredible singing voice. Their skills are also Gifts, and together, the three of them are called upon to recount the past.... and create the future. But Kira comes to realize that the Council of Guardians is not just housing them, but rather imprisoning them. And is it merely a coincidence that all the children with Gifts have been orphaned?
Kira is also mentored by an old woman named Annabella, who teaches her the art of dying thread. Through talking to Annabella, Kira comes to realize that there is more to the world than she has ever known, and that many of the things she takes for granted may not be true at all. Kira also has a special friendship with a young, wild boy named Matt, who eventually dares to leave the village and returns with knowledge that changes Kira's life forever.
Now that I can see how Gathering Blue weaves itself into the other three books in Lowry's collection, I am in awe of her masterful storytelling. In Gathering Blue, Matt makes one brief reference to a man that he met in another villlage, saying that he has notable blue eyes. This man later proves to be Jonas from The Giver. In Messenger, the stories of Jonas, Kira, and Matt intertwine.
I did feel that Gathering Blue was definitely a darker story than The Giver.... or rather, it had a darker feel. In The Giver, Jonas believes that he is living in a perfect society. Everything is clean, well-ordered, and peaceful.... ultimately oppressive, of course, but serene upon first glance. But the village of Gathering Blue is filthy, primitive, filled with pain, loss, and violence. I wasn't expecting that on my first reading, but now that I see it in context of the full series, I find it fascinating. These societies can then be contrasted with Village in Messenger and the seaside settlement in Son--all essentially post-apocolyptic, but all so very different.
So if Lowry drew you into her world with The Giver, definitely give Gathering Blue a chance. It's a very different world, but one that is equally as fascinating.