A Wizard of Earthsea

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ based on 1 review.

Written by Ursula K. Le Guin.

tl;dr: A masterclass in world building that keeps you engaged, even if the central mystery feels a little obvious in a modern light.




Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

It's always hard to tell with something considered a classic of its respective genre whether or not it created the very trope that now undermines it. I feel like this may not be the case with the core meme at work in this novel, but may well be true of the shape it takes (pun mildly intended). I'm talking, of course, of the Shadow – the central villain of our story. Right from the very start, my mind immediately settled on the theory that this was no evil creature or malevolent spirit, but rather the part of Sparrowhawk himself that could be, if he were to choose to embrace the darker side of his nature. And so it ends up being.

But unlike many of those cultural flashpoints that become so mimicked as to ultimately appear unoriginal when revisited at a later date, A Wizard of Earthsea manages to stand strong. A large part of that is how well the story is woven. You may guess the central conceit early, but it remains believable – and engaging – that Sparrowhawk himself cannot see the solution. And as the tale unfolds, it consistently throws up question marks over the accuracy of your theory. From the certainty of the Archmage's of Roke that this is an evil, ancient creature, to the discovery of the Stone (which clearly proves that such creatures did, indeed, exist, and still hold sway to some extent), there are these consistent, clever callbacks to earlier pieces of contradictory evidence that keep you guessing, at least a little. Each new adventure also helps expand both the masterful world building, and the character of Sparrowhawk, so that you grow alongside him on his epic journey, from an arrogant youth to an empathetic and measured adult.

I was surprised about how "YA" it felt. Perhaps that's as much the "school of witchcraft and wizardry" style setting for parts, or the clear connections with Arthurian legend (particularly as in The Once & Future King), but the consistent theme of friendship amongst younger people was striking, though far from unwelcome. I guess I'd always assumed this was "high fantasy", and therefore more aimed at an adult audience (akin to The Lord of the Rings), but I'd say that mid-teens is probably the sweet spot to truly connect. Still, the writing and story are solid enough to be exceptional whenever you pick it up.

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