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

Quietly powerful: Ursula K. LeGuin – The Left Hand of Darkness

Last year, through no reason at all, I started reading a newer book and an older book at the same time. There are still so many SFF classics I need to catch up on and, somehow, combining and older and a newer read worked really well. It led me to this amazing book, which led me to a LeGuin shopping spree.

by Ursula K. LeGuin

Published by: Gateway, 1969
Ebook: 336 pages
Series: The Hainish Cycle #4
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.

Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, normally neuter, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle.They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love . . .

A while after I started reading this book, I discovered that it was part 4 of something called the Hainish Cycle. Don’t let that scare you away. I haven’t read any of the other books and this one stands quite well alone, although it gives you glimpses of what the other books may be about.

The story is set on Gethen, a winter planet populated by an androgynous people who can become male or female when they reach a certain time in their sexual cycle. They may become male once, female the next time, but the rest of the time they appear neuter and thus, all equal. This may seem like an obvious choice for a feminist writer to make a point about gender equality and it could have come across as a cheap trick – but with someone of LeGuin’s caliber, the people’s gender identity (or lack thereof) grows naturally from the story.

Much like other aspects of the culture Genly Ai discovers on Gethen, the world-building itself is done so effortlessly, by showing instead of telling. While the gender thing may feel complicated to someone like Genly – who is male and always looks male (which makes him appear as constantly at the peak of his sexual cylce to Gethenians, or constanlty aroused) – Gethenian politics and social norms seem even stranger. This is just one aspect that made this book so great. It introduces you to a humanoid people on a planet that has similarities to ours, except it’s always cold, always winter. But the social structures, the genders, the sexual identity of its people are just different enough to give you the same sort of culture shock Genly must be feeling.

There are other things that I had a lot of fun discovering with Genly and trying to piece together in my mind. Oracles, prisons, tensions between nations… but those are just things that happen on the sidelines, between the actual plot. And that, although one might say not very much happens, is just as thrilling. Genly is on Gethen to observe, to let the people know that there are others out there in the vastness of space, that they are not alone but rather welcome to join a greater unity of people. One of the people Genly has to do with on Gethen is Estraven, whom he does not fully trust and who we, as readers, also can’t really put our finger on until the story progresses.

Genly Ai may be the offical protagonist of this novel, but it was Estraven I kept wanting to follow, to learn more about. Through their adventures together, the reader gets to know both of them better as they get to know each other and each other’s cultures better. What LeGuin does here with language is just beautiful. There are no long expositions, no explanations even, simply us readers quietly watching Genly and Estraven and the planet Gethen doing what they do and learning through them. The descriptions of the eternal ice and the winter landscapes were lovely, but it was the relationship that builds up over the course of the novel that really intrigued me.

I could read all sorts of things into this book and that makes it enjoyable even after having finished it. It’s the sort of book you should read with others, to discuss afterward, to see what others saw when they read it. I suspect every reading will give you a different experience (although I have yet to try that out myself) and every person will get something different from the book. But despite having only read it once, I understand why it won all sorts of awards and why it counts as a classic of science fiction. It is a truly remarkable work of fiction.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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

Ursula K. LeGuin – The Lathe of Heaven

Auf meiner Reise durch die Science Fiction Masterworks sind mir schon ein paar großartige Bücher in die Hände gefallen. Und es zeigt sich wieder klar und deutlich, dass ein Buch keine 800 Seiten lang sein muss, um eine gute Idee gut umzusetzen. Ursula K. LeGuin kenne ich sonst nur vom Erdsee-Zyklus (noch ungelesen *schäm*) und mit diesen nicht mal 200 Seiten hat sie meine Neugierde erst so richtig geweckt.

Deutscher Titel: Die Geißel des Himmels
Erschienen: 1971
Seiten: 192 (233)
Übersetzt von: Joachim Körber
Erschienen bei: Avon Books (Edition Phantasia)

Meine Bewertung: 7/10

Erster Satz: Current-borne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss.

George Orr lebt im Jahr 2002, die Welt ist maßlos überbevölkert, die Luftverschmutzung hat das Klima verändert, und Krieg und Hungersnot steht auf der Tagesordnung. Doch George Orr hat andere Probleme. Er wird Zur Zwangstherapie geschickt, weil er Medikamente missbraucht hat. Denn er hat Angst vor dem Träumen und versucht es durch Tabletten zu unterdrücken. Dass Orrs Träume die Fähigkeit haben, die Welt rückwirkend zu verändern, entdeckt sein Arzt, Dr. Haber, sehr schnell. Und wenn man einen Menschen vor sich hat, der mit seinen Träumen die Welt verbessern könnte, wer würde da nicht in Versuchung geraten…

Obwohl der Erdsee-Zyklus schon seit Jahren subbt, ist dies mein erstes Buch von Ursula K. Le Guin. Und diese Grande Dame der Science Fiction hat mich schwer beeindruckt. Auf nicht einmal 200 Seiten erzählt sie eine überaus spannende Geschichte, die zum Nachdenken anregt und trotz ihres Erscheinungsdatums 1971, abgesehen von ein paar Themen, noch immer aktuell wirkt. Denn Träume sind allen Menschen bekannt und wir können uns ihnen ebenso wenig entziehen wie George Orr.

Doch hier spielt noch ein anderes Element eine Rolle – nämlich die Fähigkeit, Gott zu spielen und was verschiedene Menschen damit anfangen. Die Ideen und Gedankengänge der Charaktere fand ich faszinierend zu verfolgen und ich an Georges oder auch Dr. Habers Stelle wüsste auch nicht wirklich, was mit so einer Gabe tun würde. Wer hätte nicht gerne eine durch und durch friedliche Erde ohne Rassenhass und Ungleichheit? Und wenn sich der Herr Doktor durch Georges Träume auch noch ein schönes Eckbüro erträumt, wer kann es ihm schon verübeln?

Die Handvoll Charaktere in The Lathe of Heaven wirken alle realistisch. Am echtesten erschien mir Dr. Haber, obwohl auch George in seiner Durchschnittlichkeit erstaunlich dreidimensional rüberkommt. Für eine detaillierte Entwicklung von Heather blieb kaum Zeit, sie diente eher zur Anschauung der Konsequenzen von Georges und Dr. Habers Taten. Ich mochte sie nicht unbedingt immer gleich gerne, aber in gewissen Szenen ist sie mir sehr schnell ans Herz gewachsen.
Mir hat diese Lektüre großen Spaß gemacht und obwohl Le Guin hier hauptsächlich über abstrakte Themen spricht, erzählt sich auch eine spannende Geschichte mit einem gut gebauten Spannungsbogen.  Das Ende hat meiner Meinung nach dann noch perfekt gepasst – es hätte kein anderes geben dürfen.

PRO: Flüssig und spannend zu lesen. Gute Dialoge zwischen glaubhaften Charakteren.
CON: Vorsicht: Könnte zu selbstständigem Denken verleiten!
FAZIT: Auch für (Noch-)Neulinge der Science Fiction sehr zugängliches, kurzes Buch, das zeitlose Themen bespricht.