Wednesday, June 17, 2009

LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy

After blasting through A Wizard of Earthsea a week ago, I naturally had to read the sequels, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. Although neither sequel gave me quite the emotional punch I got from the first novel, both are good in their own rights.

Like A Wizard of Earthsea, both sequels could be considered coming-of-age novels even as they portray Ged's growth and maturity.

In The Tombs of Atuan, Ged is really a secondary character; the story centers on a young girl named Tenar. At a young age she is determined to be a reincarnation (similar to a Tibetan Buddhist tulku) of Arha ("the eaten one"), the high priestess of the "Nameless Ones", old gods who have fallen somewhat out of favor. In stark contrast to the first novel, which ranged across the known world, this is a claustrophobic story, confined to a small area around the eponymous tombs, and taking place largely in underground caverns and within Tenar's mind. In the end, Ged's role in this novel seems to me to be almost a deus ex machina plot device, rather than really playing a part in the story, and for that reason, I found it somewhat unsatisfying.

The Farthest Shore introduces us to Ged as an older man, mature not only in his magical powers but also in his decision-making. The story is told from the perspective of a young prince, who, in the course of the story, develops the self-confidence that he would need later as king, but is really about Ged's transformation from a life of doing to a life of being (similar to the Taoist concept of wu wei). This is an engaging story, but in many ways it revisits themes covered in the first novel.

Altogether, the Earthsea trilogy is excellent children's fantasy. Though the quality drops somewhat from the first novel, they are all well worth the short time it takes to read them, and all are head-and-shoulders above the majority of both child and adult fantasy.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

Last night I had the tremendous pleasure of reading Ursula LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea (which, sadly, appears to be completely out of print, but can likely be found at most used book stores).

I've only read it once before, more than 20 years ago, when I also read Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Eric Frank Russell's Wasp within the same 24 hours. The other two I've come back to many times over the years, but for some reason, I hadn't re-read LeGuin's novel until yesterday.

For what ever reason, last night I pulled this book off the shelf with the intention of reading a few chapters and then going to sleep early. Just like the previous time, however, I wound up devouring the book in one sitting! Beyond that, it was so good that I felt compelled to write about it, producing my first posting here in two years.

Although my edition clocks in at a slender 181 pages, this is a superb coming-of-age story about a powerful but undisciplined young wizard (LeGuin says that the book was in part a response to the image of wizards as ancient and wise, and to her wondering where they come from). Too often, juvenile fiction is either overly moralizing (as in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia) or mindless adventure. Here, LeGuin has threaded that needle perfectly, producing a rivetting adventure story in which we see the protagonist overcome his hubris. Although it is a children's novel (probably most suitable for 6th grade and up, though appropriate for advanced readers as early as 3rd grade), adults will also find it quite engaging; this is a must-read for anyone who enjoys fantasy.