Friday, 4 May 2012

Review: 'A Wizard of Earthsea' by Ursula le Guin

The is only the second of le Guin's books I've read, and the first fantasy (the other was the sci-fi 'The Left Hand of Darkness'), so it's hard to generalise but there are some similarities. The dense, even-toned prose works well here, turning a simple coming-of-age story into something more mythological, with all the necessary poetic and lyrical expressions which never become too flowery. This is not your average fantasy, and perhaps it's more suited to its age (it was first published in 1968) than the present, which specialises in faster, action-packed adventures, but it reminded me a little of the style of 'The Lord of the Rings' and I rather liked it.

The world is an archipelago, a mass of mostly small islands, some little more than rocks or sand bars, so that everything depends on boats and sea-faring, and that gives a very unusual feel right from the start. A great deal of the book is spent skimming the waves in one boat or another, sheltering for a day or two at this island or that, and then off again, and le Guin makes this seem perfectly normal. There are little two line descriptions of towns or ports or island communities, each one subtly different from the last, which effortlessly convey the variable nature of the world of Earthsea. So many fantasy writers forget that variability, so their worlds seem blandly uniform and therefore unreal, but here it is done exceptionally well.

The magic system is hard to describe. It depends on knowing the 'true' name of things, and calling upon the innate power of the world, but it comes at a price, and the use of magic is restricted by the need to keep all things in equilibrium. There is also an element of 'with great power comes great responsibility'. There are many people with some magical ability, but most become no more than informal village witches or sorcerers, and only a few become true mages.

The story centres around Ged, following his life from his tiny mountain village through a brief apprenticeship to a mage, and then to the island of Roke, to learn at the academy there (a wizard school, if you like), where his great ability is unleashed, but the flaws in his youthful personality lead to near disaster. Since we're told at the start of the book that Ged goes on to become famed in legend for his skills as a wizard, we never fear for him, but his journeyings to set right his mistake are no less interesting for that, and full of atmosphere and mystery. The ending, while quite easy to predict, was still very satisfying. Most of the characters are only lightly sketched, but they have a great deal of resonance for all that, especially Vetch, Ged's friend at the academy, and Ogion, his first mage tutor, who both have great wisdom, although in different ways.

This is a wonderful read, partly for the beautifully lyrical writing, partly for the simple but intriguing story, and partly for the underlying depth to much of it. There is a great deal here about power, about the nature of humanity, about the need for balance, about hubris and wisdom and faith and friendship, and many more such themes, which are very thought-provoking. While technically this is probably classed as young adult, it reads just fine for adults too. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys mythological tales or sagas. A good four stars.

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