Ursula K. Le Guin – A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea 1)

Listed among the classics of fantasy, this book has embarrassed me long enough. I finally picked it up, immediately liked it, only to lose interest around the middle. I definitely prefer Le Guin in the sci-fi genre.

by Ursula K. Le Guin

published: 1968
by: Parnassus Press
pages: 198

My rating: 5/10

First sentence: The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.

Ged grows up in a little town where he is taught some hedgemagic by the local witch. Soon his overwhelming talent is noticed by a wandering magician who takes him on as apprentice and sends him off to wizard school. During his studies there, Ged accidentally unleashes a dark force that follows him wherever he goes. As he leaves school, he’ll have to decide whether to keep running from this evil shadow or to take a stand and fight it…

Le Guin tells this classic high fantasy story in a fairy tale-like manner. There are very few dialogues, a chapter may months or years go by and action is described to inform, rather than grab the reader’s attention. While the author knows how to write beautifully, I’m not sure this dry style really suited the plot of this particular book. Le Guin’s language was enjoyable to read but the book had many things not working for it.

Earthsea, for example, is – as the name suggests – a collection of islands, groups of islands, and little islets in a vast and unknown sea. I find the idea of such a world quite charming and the cultures that resulted interesting. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see a lot of those. There’s hints, obviously, at people being fishermen and sailors but it didn’t really come alive for me.

Same goes for the characters. While we follow Ged’s journey, he remains kind of in the background. We are told about his feelings and motivations but I didn’t really feel it. As for the other characters, they all felt very much like cardboard to me. There is one rival during Ged’s school time, he meets a ton of people when travelling but nobody came close to me. They are introduced only to have no real part in the story later on. Not caring about the characters, even the protagonist, is a bad thing for me. I’m a huge fan of character-driven books, I don’t have to have a lot of plot or action as long as I find the characters intriguing. I don’t even have to like them. Give me an interesting asshole any day. But this? Meh.

The story arc as such felt unoriginal and standard fantasy, but then this book was published in the late sixties when the market wasn’t as overhwelmingly full of Tolkien knock-offs as it is now. I’m sure it wouldn’t have felt as generic then as it did to me now.

So while I did enjoy Le Guin’s style in general, this book was not a great read for me. The fairy tale-like story telling worked much better in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books (which are aimed at children but are highly enjoyable even for adults) and felt very episodic and disjointed. Since I didn’t care about what happened to the characters, I’m probably going to forget about this book very soon. I will eventually give the second volume in the series a try but I’m keeping my hopes down, this time.

THE GOOD: Short book, nice writing.
THE BAD: Uninteresting characters, episodic plot, not very surprising ending.
THE VERDICT: Interesting to read from a (fantasy-) historical point of view but nothing that will last in my memory.

RATING: 5/10


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