Book Reviews Earthsea Series

Published on January 15th, 2014 | by Michaela Buckley

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The Earthsea Cycle – Ursula K. Le Guin

Considered one of the best Fantasy series ever, The Earthsea Cycle begun in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea and began as a trilogy, however there have since been additional sequels with the gap between the 3rd and 4th books spanning 18 years.  They have been poorly adapted numerous times so have not entered popular knowledge yet, the most well-known adaptation being “Tales from the Earthsea” an animé film created by Studio Ghibli.

A Wizard of Earthsea

Following an enemy raid, a young boy uses his gifts to save the village from its would-be captors, and begins his new life as an apprentice mage. He sets off to the Island of Roke, where the school of magic is and soon discovers the perils of magic-use. The series has a pretty grim start, making one fully aware that its intended audience is mature teens and not children like might be expected. The novel (and the series) has strong themes of growing and development, especially so for the character of Sparrowhawk, who quickly learns to fend for himself as he takes to the seas.

As usual Le Guin’s writing is beautiful in the book, she uses powerful imagery and poetic language to vividly detail not only what Earthsea looks like, but what it feels like in the pacing of her language. As a first novel to a series, it doesn’t suffer from any kind of lack of scope or direction that starters often do, the world is well built and not too exposition-filled, there are numerous references to outside ideas, cultures and forces which all inform the plot.

It’s a fun adventure, that doesn’t feel like retrodden ground, despite the usual assets and manages to feel singularly complete as the others never do. The drive of the novel meets fruition well at the end, leaving a great opening for more or not.

The Tombs of Atuan

Where the previous book had a young man zipping around the world, The Tombs of Atuan sees Arha, the high priestess of the Tombs, whose soul is forever reborn, and with every reincarnation, a young girl is taken from her family to live a secluded existence of servitude and obedience. The majority of the novel is at a standstill, learning of the isolated culture of the Kargish lands, in particular, this religious sect who worship the ‘Dark Ones’ and explores the role of the high priestess and how she accepts and uses it in order to gain the approval of those around her.

Whereas the struggle for SparrowhawTombs of Atuank was self-recognition, Arha’s is of recognition, she uses the tombs as a way to escape the others, who are part of a larger machine to which she feels she doesn’t belong, and as the book progresses, she starts to actively question her own upbringing. The new perspective of a different race of people adds some flavour to the world of Earthsea, as it can be so easy to forget that not all islanders are the same.

Although engaging, this novel is weaker than its former, as the less active parts of the plot begin to bore and the somewhat skewed thinking and narrow mind of the protagonist offer little insight to anything too interesting, however, the growth of Arha allows for a more personal, youthful and rebellious book.

The Farthest Shore

As the series takes a bit of a time-jump, we see Sparrowhawk as the new arch-mage, who gets word that people all over Earthsea are starting to lose their magical powers, and takes off with his new sidekick, Arren to find the cause. It has been 20 years since the happenings from the previous book, we see a Sparrowhawk who has become more wise and knowing, but is now himself a teacher or guide, to Arren, fulfilling the ‘cycle’ aspect of the series.

With the addition of an antagonist, the pair go sailing around the archipelago of Earthsea, not unlike the first book, here we see the final resolution to the character of Sparrowhawk, and what feels like the beginning for Arren. There is more toil and pain, leaving behind wonders of before and plunging into darkness. The series has featured many Taoist ideas however the equilibrium balance is more emphasised and referred to often by the characters.

Overall, the best in the series, the novel features all that is the best of Earthsea, thick and heavy concepts, strong characters with emotional depth and an epic plot with narrative turns and a different moral image, like the philosophical principles of Taoism, the final part of the trilogy concludes the cycle as well as begins one.

Tehanu

After a huge timegap, Le Guin decided to raise once again Earthsea, but perhaps she should have left it submerged.
Just days after the events of the previous book, Arha (now known as Goha) who has become a widowed housewife and has taken in a young girl who was violently attacked and now bears vicious burn scars.

Le Guin must have had some revisionist doubts about the feminist angle of Earthsea, where all mages are men and women do housework. However, what some perceive as feminist others, such as myself believe otherwise what with the fact that she merely ends up reinforcing the patriarchy and losing all sense of Earthsea.

Characters such as Sparrowhawk have become psychologically castrated, rape is used as a generic form of subjugation of women and all the magical essence has drained out of this book, leaving the whole experience sour and tainted. I wasn’t aware that there was such a time jump between the writing of the two books, which now makes the situation and the reasoning for its difference rather clear. The Taoist themes are still prevalent, but never amount to much more than what was inferred at the end of the previous book, and there are many opinions of women and men being different bearers of power being thrown around, only to have the last scene take away all meaning of these differences.

Dull and stationary in both plot and concepts, don’t even bother.

Earthsea map

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