⭐⭐⭐⭐½ averaged across 4 books.

tl;dr: Tales of the wizards, dragons, sailors, and people of Earthsea.

A Wizard of Earthsea

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.

The Tombs of Atuan

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

The boy that was Sparrowhawk is now the young man known as Ged (to some – I do love the whole "true name" concept), and whilst his outlook on life is certainly much more mature, his approach is still filled with youthful arrogance and an overconfidence in his own effective plot armour. Though, I guess, as this is a book, and he does survive, perhaps that confidence isn't too poorly placed 😄

After the previous story, I'd been expecting more grand adventures on the high seas, further exploration of the islands of Earthsea, and a rich, varied narrative, probably seeing Ged evolve his powers continually. The story is certainly still rich, and there's plenty of character (and power) growth for Ged, but I hadn't expected it to largely focus elsewhere, and stick to one location. The Tombs of Atuan is arguably a much better book than the alternative I had envisaged, not least of all because it develops a very compelling new character in Tenar/Arha, and gives us an almost entirely alien look into another corner of this increasingly fascinating world.

There is an element of frustration that we still don't get much concrete information on the nature or origin of the Nameless Ones, who feel very much intertwined with the being in the Stone from the previous story, but perhaps that ambiguity is the key to their terror. And that's about the only criticism I can rightfully level at what is otherwise a well paced, intriguing extension of the first book, and a joy to read. It's definitely slower and a little less grand in its plans – which does make the ending feel a little out of place – but it's no less enjoyable.

The Farthest Shore

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

Le Guin is certainly okay with whisking away a happy ending. I've been impressed before at how death has been used in this series as a sort of grounding device: these are powerful people, but they are not invincible and there are repercussions for their actions. And yet, both of the previous books have ended on firm high notes; not so much here! The Farthest Shore is an even darker story than the previous two – all happiness, joy, and entertainment is being literally sucked out of the entire world – but even the silver lining is muted. Sure, the King has returned (🎺🎺), but Ged is destroyed in the effort. I guess time will tell if this is a "Magneto at the end of X-Men" level of powerless (i.e. just needs some recharge time) or something more concrete, but either way it really dulls the victory.

Though, on the other hand, it also creates a book of two halves. We open with Ged more powerful than ever before, journeying out with a Prince on a mission where the stakes couldn't be any higher. Their hopes dwindle rapidly until a cataclysmic showdown that results in the death of one of the most powerful beings in the world and only a partial victory against the necromancer, Cob. Their second, final victory, is then also muted by Ged's complete loss of power, and the gruelling ordeal they go through to escape the Dry Land. So we start with god-tier Ged, get the battle of the most powerful beings, and finish with a Ged little more than a man. It's certainly not your average hero's tale, and the book is the better for that.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book does feel a little too "high fantasy" for me, and it rushes through, intent on getting to that showdown. Don't get me wrong, the exposition and slow-build revelations around the creeping dread covering their world are well done, building tension nicely. But there's something about the overarching plot – prophesied kings; deus ex dragon; great magical battles; a literal journey to and from the afterlife – that lacks something which the previous two books had in spades. It's hard to put my finger on what, exactly, but I think it has something to do with the smaller side of world building. The human side; the cultural aspects. The previous two stories had this in spades, but here it's largely lost. Perhaps that was a narrative choice; a mirror of the dark magical impacts on the world itself. But it does lose some of the soul of the story, as a result.

Of course, there are still moments that this shines through. Most of all are the Raft People, who I absolutely adore. I think they're a brilliant addition to this watery world and a welcome respite from the slow, trudging gloom of the novel. I still thoroughly enjoyed it, but it does feel like the weakest in the series.


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

I started reading the fourth book in the series immediately after the third. As a result, I didn't write any of those reviews at the time of reading the stories, figuring I'd wait until all four were done and still relatively fresh in my mind. More fool me! Here we are, almost five years later (over five years from when I first started the series) and I've finally managed to finish things up. Honestly, I think a part of that is how different Tehanu is to the first three books; I see why people call those the "Earthsea trilogy" and this is almost a separate entity, despite having some of the strongest narrative through lines from earlier stories. It also makes sense that this book was written decades after the hours – it feels different. Older. Wiser. Subtler. And that's a good thing.

Our tale picks up pretty much exactly where we left off, with Ged being borne back to his homeland of Gont, aback a dragon. But he doesn't actually arrive for several chapters. Instead, we return to the end of the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, and discover what became of Tenar. She has also wound up on Gont where, in many ways, she has led the life that Ged would have had, were it not for his immense power and many adventures. She has apprenticed to his old master, Ogion, for a time, before ultimately settling down with a family on a local farm. She's lived a surprisingly simple life, whilst her old friend has been off saving the world and crowning kings. But she now finds herself at a crossroads. Her husband is dead. She is old. And for all that she pretends to be another of the common, simple folk of our valley, she will always be an outsider, and someone who sees the world a little differently. So it's not much of a surprise to her neighbours when she adopts a mistreated and nearly killed young girl, nor that she is called to see Ogion before his death, which occurs just before Ged is finally returned.

For all of the majesty and adventure of the previous three books, Tehanu takes places across a handful of rural valleys. Its focus is on the simple evils of every day life, and whilst the repercussions of their prior actions are mentioned – the King himself even cameos, fortuitously, at one point – they are mostly referred to in the abstract, as happenings elsewhere. Even the world building is subtle, woven through dialogue and song, far more than epic discoveries and foreign lands. But there's a power in that subtlety, and you can't help but feel that this is the book with the most importance contained within its words. The ideas are simple, sure, yet radical, and strike at the heart of the themes of the prior books in a much more relatable way.

Of course, there is still magic and darkness. This wouldn't be a tale of Earthsea without them! And here, once again, they are introduced as a light touch, a withering glance, or a strange phrase. That the burnt girl, Therru, will be important is never beyond doubt, but the final reveal is also done cleverly – and simply. There are no grand battles or sudden bursts of magical power. Her adopted parents – Tenar and Ged, now together (at last!) – are simply bewitched, in a manner that is somehow far more terrifying than the necromancers and shadow demons of previous stories, and she... well, she stops it all. Without pomp or ceremony or revelation, she walks to a cliff, calls a dragon, burns their enemies in one fell swoop, and then decides to remain the girl, their girl, for now. She is dragon born, and from everything the book builds up, she will go on to shape this new version of their world, but she is still a child, and that is as clear as her power. See, subtle. Clever.

Yet, that reveal is a little too unsubtly telegraphed. Like the first book, the clues are too neatly aligned, the trope-filled path too well trod. The constant references to another dragon born woman on the island, and the reactions of those with magical powers to her, are all clear. When the King arrives seeking a woman who will help them choose the next Archmage (or who may be that person) it is all but underlined in the text: Therru is powerful! However, like the first book, that clear narrative direction doesn't really hinder the story. Indeed, it gives the book ample opportunities to have Tenar point out the idiotic, patriarchal assumptions that are all around her. From her son simply stating that the farm is now his (despite never having worked it or cared for it), to the King and wizard completely missing the point of the prophecy, she is consistently having to point out that this division between the genders is not helpful. And these points are underscored throughout in much less in-your-face ways, from her constant wondering around "women's work" to the way that magic is clearly divided between Witches and Wizards, and what that tells you overall.

This is why the book feels more important – and more personal. I can't help but feel that Le Guin was pouring her own frustrations, experiences, and hopes into Tenar, and trying to say "look, this is stupid, isn't that obvious; there is a better way!" It's a solid message, wrapped up in a superb book. It may not be as big, or as flashy, or even as enjoyable as other tales in the series, but it is probably my favourite.

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