24 March, 2009

Books 1, 2 and 3 - the Earthsea Trilogy

To start off this blog with a bang I give you not one, not two, but three books! OK, they're all part of the same series, but they still totally count.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)

Author: Ursula K. Le Guin

Why this book?
Le Guin's trilogy (OK, it's not a trilogy any more, but it began as one!) is one of the foundation stones of modern fantasy. As an avid fantasy-reader, I thought it was about time to find out what exactly it was that makes her books so good.

What's it about, anyway?
A Wizard of Earthsea kicks of the series with the story of Duny, a young boy who accidentally discovers he has a strong gift for magic. When his talents exceed those of his aunt, the local witch, he becomes apprentice to Ogion, a wizard, and gets a new name - Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk proves to be very ambitious, and leaves his master for a school for wizards, where he only becomes more arrogant. Eventually, his arrogance lets loose a spirit on the world, and kills the school's Archmage. Sparrowhawk loses his confidence entirely, but gradually comes to realise that he will have to face the spirit if he is ever to be made whole again.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, focuses on a girl, Tenar, who is named at a young age to be the reincarnation of a high priestess. Her position is a lonely one, and as she is often trying to avoid or ignore the cruel plots and cold political manoerves of the other priestesses, she has little understanding of human kindness. When she meets Ged - Sparrowhawk - at first she plans to kill him, until her own interactions with him lead her to instead contemplate leaving her lonely existence.

Finally, The Farthest Shore sees Sparrowhawk as Archmage, now a wise and mature man, who must deal with a crisis facing the whole of Earthsea - that magic is beginning to fade. Assisted by a young prince, Arren, Sparrowhawk sets out on a journey to find the source of magic's destruction. Ged's journey from boy to young man is paralleled here by Arren's, while Sparrowhawk's role is more of a mentor - like that of Ogion's. Eventually, Sparrowhawk and Arren journey right into the land of the dead to defeat their foe.

The good and the bad:
Le Guin is nothing if not a compelling story teller. All three books are beautifully written, and her world-building is superb. Her three protagonists - Ged, Tenar and Arren - are well-drawn, and their character development throughout each book is gradual and believable.

However, while I enjoyed all three books they are not without their faults. My biggest problem is with Le Guin's treatment of women. Female characters are frequently conniving, devious, power-hungry; women magic-users are seen as inferior to men. While Ged and Arren both have their 'mentors', Tenar has no similar female role model, and it is not without Ged's help that she is able to escape her fate. Having said that, this gender power imbalance is something that Le Guin herself recognises. In Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea, which I have yet to read, she does her best to address the inequalities that exist in her world.

So should I read it or what?
If you're not into fantasy, then these books are definitely not for you. If you are, then I highly recommend both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. The Farthest Shore was less compelling - too similar in overall feeling to A Wizard of Earthsea for me to really enjoy it. But hey, if you read and love the first two, it's probably worth giving it a go!

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