Review: A Wizard of EarthSea

I realize the incredible chutzpah of deciding to “review” a seminal work that is foundational to its genre, many, many decades after it first made a name for itself. However, Review sounds better than “Karen prattles on about Earthsea for a few paragraphs,” so that’s what I’m going with.

I’ve had a problem with the Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: I can’t read it in bed. I have a gorgeous illustrated edition of the complete series, including all the side stories, with wonderful illustrations, and it’s such a big tome that I can only read it using the arm of the couch as support. However, that useful piece of furniture is just outside my daughter’s bedroom, and having the light on there at night would impact her sleep, because she does not want to close the door. So I put off starting the book for months, only eventually asking myself “Hey, do you know it’s possible to read during daylight hours?” Apparently you can do that.

See, that’s my excuse for sticking to reading all that trashy junk on my Kindle: furniture availability.

Anyway, so I’ve finally started, and my, is it slow at the beginning. You could have a normal statement:

“The tale was told far and wide.”

And then you have Le Guin Style, which often features huge lists of locations that the reader has absolutely no frame of reference for. It goes something like this:

The tale was told in Udderbatch, by the fishwives and tavern girls. It was told from the peaks of Skandelbach to the coast of Sweegs, the wind-swept majesties of Ungk and Gakt, in the serene bays of Kanaswenegada. There were those who spoke of Ged’s journey on the fjords of Gondleborsct, the Tower of Kling; even as far as Kfojweiujei, The Unknown Constipated Heron’s land. They even tell tales of it on Gub, and the Gubsman know of what they speak. In Palatillylantra….

And so on. I think this sort of thing is the result of Tolkien being the standard back when Le Guin first published this in 1968. I stuck with the book because I had confidence it would get better, and it did, but I don’t think I would keep reading most books that start out this boring. I feel like there’s some kind of sad commentary on our dwindling collective attention span there, but what can I say? I don’t need a book to grab the reader forcefully at the beginning (and I’m sometimes resistant to attempts to do that), but this is not good writing.

Fortunately, once you get past the first few chapters and Le Guin has gotten the travelogue out of her system, it gets very good. The plot is unremarkable, but Le Guin achieves such a vivid atmosphere, you can practically taste the brackish waters of Earthsea on your tongue. When the hero, Ged, goes to magic school, we feel what it’s like to be a student on that campus– a distant precursor to all the “Magic Academy” books that became so popular in the wake of Harry Potter. When Ged and his friend Vetch go sailing out to the ends of civilization, we feel the fear of being surrounded on all sides by a violent, unpitying sea.

In fact, if I were to say what the book is about, the generic answer would be “A cocky wizard comes to face his dark side,” but it’s really more about the insecurity of living on an island. Earthsea is a place of hundreds of islands, with only a really small “mainland,” and that feeling of being in imminent danger of being overrun on all sides by the sea permeates the entire book– perhaps, if Le Guin does here what I now expect her to do (or rather, has done– you get it), it will permeate the entire series.

I’ve already started the second book, The Tombs of Atuan, and that book has a much more energetic start. I’m really enjoying it, and I may continue to post my impressions of the series here. Of course, I might just read it all really fast– if I can convince my kid to close her bedroom door at night. Hey, I can dream.

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