Ursula K. LeGuin – The Farthest Shore

My reading of the Earthsea Cycle continues and I believe that I have made it past its most boring entry with this book. It’s not without merit – quite the opposite – but it’s a book that makes you work for it. The enjoyment isn’t right there on the page, you have to create it yourself. And, honestly, I struggled with that at times.

by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Bantam, 1972
Ebook: 288 pages
Series: Earthsea #3
My rating: 5/10

Opening line: In the court of the fountain the sun of March shone through young leaves of ash and elm, and water leapt and fell through shadow and clear light.

Darkness threatens to overtake Earthsea: the world and its wizards are losing their magic. Despite being wearied with age, Ged Sparrowhawk – Archmage, wizard, and dragonlord – embarks on a daring, treacherous journey, accompanied by Enlad’s young Prince Arren, to discover the reasons behind this devastating pattern of loss. Together they will sail to the farthest reaches of their world – even beyond the realm of death – as they seek to restore magic to a land desperately thirsty for it.

Magic is disappearing from the world and young Prince Arren is sent by his father to Roke to ask the Archmage Sparrowhawk for guidance. Sparrowhawk, whom we know as Ged, of course, has heard similar tales of wizards losing their powers from different parts of Earthsea and takes young Arren on a quest to figure out what’s causing this terrifying development and how to fix it.

What follows are many very slow chapters that don’t offer a lot of plot on the surface but rather spend most time pondering about life, death, the meaning of ones actions, the need for a king to unify Earthsea, and all sorts of other stuff. Ged sometimes showers Arren in his wisdom and while the young man puts his loyalty into the older man, their relationship goes through a lot of stages before being truly comfortable. Watching them change from a sort of master/follower dynamic into something new was one of the aspects I liked about this book.
So these two men, one the Archmage who has restored the ring of Erreth-Akbe, the other a young prince with the weight of responsibility on his shoulders and no magic at all, travel on the trusty boat Lookfar to far places and devastated islands. They meet people who have been affected by the loss of magic and they see how differently they deal with this loss. Here, too, we got interesting glimpses into other places on Earthsea, but never enough to fully immerse myself. Whenever we’d reach a place and finally talk to someone, within a few pages we’d be gone again, off to the next island.

These were the parts of the novel where I felt I could (and maybe should?) read a lot into the story but I had no idea what the author truly wanted to say. There is a lot of talk about life and death, and how the two are sides of the same coin. But at the same time, this story is also about Arren growing up and learning that people he may idolize are just regular people as well, with flaws and quirks and a past. And while I appreciate these themes and I generally enjoy fiction that makes me think, in this book it was simply too much “let’s think hard about the meaning of life” and not enough adventure, magic, or getting to know characters. Or let’s put it differently, I wasn’t sure where things were going – were we going to fight some evil entity that sucks out all the magic from the world? Would there be an epic battle? Or would this story lead to a quiet, introspective ending where Arren has grown up to be a great, responsible man, and magic is returned because of the power of belief or something like that.

There were some passages that I found truly exciting. Ged and Arren meet a group of people who live on rafts on the open sea, never setting foot on land. Their culture and way of life was so interesting and I had so much fun getting to know them that this was probably my favorite chapter in the entire book. Similarly, I enjoyed their encounters with dragons, and the ending which, while not necessarily the kind of epic battle you’d expect, was moving and actually tied the whole book together neatly.

I feel like this may be the kind of book I will appreciate more on a re-read. It’s a clear departure from the first two novels which could be marketed as YA because I doubt children would have the patience for a story like this. It’s too slow-moving for that. And while I appreciate this work for what it says, I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed reading it very much. Mostly, it was a slog and I had to really work finding something to hold on to, something to care about. That makes it by no means a bad book and the ending made me want to continue the series even more, but as ratings go, I have to take pleasure into consideration. As middling as this may have been, I don’t think you’ll have to wait long for my next review. Tehanu is the Earthsea book I am most excited for!

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh


Earthsea is so Much Bigger: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Tombs of Atuan

I read A Wizard of Earthsea a few years ago and found it okay. Then I re-read it last year and found it quite good but was still not overwhelmed. However, the world of Earthsea and its magic intrigued me and I wanted to see where the series took it. After having read the second volume, I think I’ve become an Earthsea fan!

by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published: Parnassus Press, 1970
Hardcover: 180 pages
Series: Earthsea #2
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: “Come home, Tenar! Come home!”

When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away – home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan.

While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.

What a sneaky little book! It starts out as a classic fantasy book would, with a young girl being taken from her family to fulfill her destiny of being the reincarnation of The Eaten One, a servant for the Nameless Ones, powers that dwell in the darkness. Her young life is dominated by ritual and loneliness. She learns what her role entails but she is also curious. So the Labyrinth under the temples and tombs and living quarters are not only her god-given domain but also where she spends most of her time exploring. Learning passages by heart, navigating in total darkness, that’s what Tenar – now Arha – is good at. But when a man suddenly appears in the place where no men are allowed, Tenar needs to take action. Whether that will mean having the man executed or learning more about him is the first thing in her life where she has to make her own choice…

I loved this book so much! The beginning is rather slow because, much like Tenar, we are thrown into a small world based on a religion we don’t yet understand. We have to learn the ropes and, in this case, the ropes are pretty boring. But when you take a step back and watch Tenar, you realize just how small her world really is but how it’s everything she’s ever known. Sure, Tenar has heard stories and knows there’s a bigger world out there, with people who look different fromher, with Mages even who can do magic at will. But her home remains the walled-in Place she grew up in, with only priestesses and eunuchs for company, over whom she holds the power.
But even in these early chapters where nothing much happens, LeGuin builds up tension for later events. Tenar learns from the High Pristess Kossil, a severe woman with a streak of cruelty, and receives kindness only from a eunuch and a young girl she befriends. So even if there isn’t much plot at first, the story is interesting because  of the character dynamics.

It doesn’t take too long until the actual plot kicks off, though. Once a mage, holding a stick that creates light, is discovered in the Undertomb, Tenar decides not to do what she is supposed to just yet, but to learn more about this stranger. To nobody’s surprise, this stranger turns out to be Ged, the titular Wizard of Earthsea from the first book, and Tenar soaks up everything he tells her of the world outside. But the pressure of having Ged killed becomes ever stronger. Tenar is battling guilt (she is betraying the Nameless Ones if she lets him live), duty (thieves must be killed), and her own, new feelings, her dreams and hopes of a different life.

I don’t want to spoil anything that happens later but this book is so full of beautiful scenes and conversations. Even without the action, I would have ended up loving it. It may start as a very quiet book and I think, at its heart, that’s what it is meant to be, but there are a few very exciting scenes if you need a little more action to keep you entertained. The setting, although small, was also an interesting departure from the sprawling oceans we have seen on our travels with Ged. The Tombs of Atuan are located in a desert but what’s really exciting is the Labyrinth itself. Its passages, its hidden chambers, its rooms whose meaning was lost centuries ago. The rules and rituals of The Eaten One and her Priestesses – for a book that’s shorter than 200 pages, that’s a lot of world-building.

The ending was a bittersweet thing of beauty. On the one hand, every bit of freedom Tenar can grab for herself makes me want to rejoice, on the other hand, things don’t always go smoothly or easily. Breaking free from one kind of thing means whatever comes next is the unknown, which can be more scary than staying in a confined world which you at least understand. LeGuin also ties together certain plot elements form the first book here. As she didn’t even intend to turn A Wizard of Earthsea into a series starter, I found this all the more impressive. Because whether it was planned or not, it reads like it was. Things come together organically and simply make this fantasy world a bit bigger, give it more depth and more layers,

I hate when authors write a book, then spontaneously turn it into a trilogy or series and clearly didn’t have a plan for the ending. It always shows, the sequels are never as good as the first book, and the endings are often a last-minute half-assed idea that leaves noone really satisfied. But if LeGuin can take random lines she wrote in the first book and then let them grow into something this great and make it feel like she had a plan all along, then I’m in for the whole ride.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Classic Fantasy Re-Read: Ursula K. LeGuin – A Wizard of Earthsea

It’s a rare occasion for me to re-read a book. The few things I’ll gladly re-read are the Harry Potter books or anything by Cat Valente. But to pick up a book I didn’t even enjoy that much the first time has really never happened before. Thanks to the N.E.W.T.s Magical Readathon, however, I took the opportunity to dive back into the world of Earthsea so I can finally continue the series. The second time around, the book fared a little better than the first, but the same things that bothered me the first time, still bothered me now.

by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Parnassus Press, 1969
Hardcover: 206 pages
Series: The Earthsea Cycle #1
My rating: 6/10

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

Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an  ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.

This is the story of Ged, a young boy with immense magical talent, who first learns from his witchy aunt in his home village, then becomes apprentice to a mage on his island, then moves on to magic school where he is trained properly in the arts of magic. During his time at school, Ged unleashes an ancient evil, a shadow that follows him wherever he goes from that moment  on. Now it is up to the young sorcerer whether he will forever keep running or face his fear and gain his freedom.

The plot as such is – nowadays – nothing groundbreaking. It seems like your standard fantasy novel, a coming of age tale about a boy wizard in a magical world. But we must not forget when this book was published and that there wasn’t anything like it then. Take alone the fact that there is no great war, no armys of Evil against which our protagonist has to fight. Instead, his battle is a quieter one, with a shadow he himself has set free in the world. Ged’s coming of age is mostly dealing with the consequences of his own actions as well as accepting who he is and finding his place in the world. We may be lucky enough today to have many fantasy books with similar premises but in the late 60ies, I’m sure this was pretty mind-blowing.

As Ged’s story unfolds, we make pit stops (literally) at many of fantasy’s standard tropes. There is a dragon to defeat – or at least to keep at bay – and people in power trying to abuse it. There are villages to be visited on the journey, friends to be made, and school rivals to defeat. And of course, there is the entire Archipelago and beyond to discover via boat and sometimes even on wings.

My biggest problem – both on my first read and this time around – was how very distant everything felt. The writing style is like a fairy tale without all the whimsy. We are served simple facts, we are told how Ged feels, we are told everything that happens in dry langage, without any apparent wish to let the reader get immersed. That doesn’t make the story bad, but it also never let me get close enough to feel anything. I didn’t every get the feeling that I was truly discovering the Archipelago with Ged. Every village seemed much like the last, even if Ged didn’t always receive the same kind of welcome. The world just didn’t come alive. The times when Ged physically encounters his shadow were the only instances where I felt something. And I did want him to succeed, to be free of the thing that haunts him, but while reading, I mostly felt like I was examining an interesting specimen under a microscope. I wasn’t in the story but on the outside, looking in, if you know what I mean.

There are also many hints as to Ged’s further adventures and accomplishments, mostly in throwaway lines that nonetheless make me interested to continue the series. I also heard that the second book will have a female protagonist and female characters of any kind were lacking in this book. In the Afterword, LeGuin explains that, for the time the book was published, she actually subverted the current standard by including women characters, and not just window-dressing women but ones with power who use or abuse it. The fact that most of the characters are also People of Color is another bonus – one that may not have appealed to publishers, judging by the many white-washed covers and the movie adaptation…

While I remember being bored a lot of the time when I first read this book, I didn’t feel that way this time. I wasn’t riveted, because the whole story happened to characters I wasn’t much invested in, but this was a quick read. The story entertained me, it made me want to learn more about the world of Earthsea and the many amazing deeds that lie in Ged’s future. But was this a standout book for me? One that I’ll remember for a long time? Not really.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good