Author: Ursula K. Le Guin | Publisher: Penguin
The Earthsea books are one of those classic works of fantasy, in the same vein as Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials, which are raved about by pretty much everyone. And Ursula K. Le Guin has achieved near-godlike status among fantasy fans. I’ve heard so much about it, but, I’m ashamed to say, Earthsea has been languishing on my classics TBR for a while… I finally had some time this weekend, and got started with A Wizard of Earthsea.
I want to tell you that I loved this book. But while there are definitely things I liked about it, don’t get me wrong, I found it a bit dry…
I loved the worldbuilding, and the map of all the little islands, the way different islands had different languages, history and cultures, and vastly different geography. I thought the descriptions of the landscapes and all the cities and towns were beautiful. The book has a real sense of place, which is integral to the story. I’m in awe of the feat of imagination it must have taken to create Earthsea, and it felt very fresh to me (even though this is an older book) because it’s definitely unlike any other setting in a book I’ve read.
The plot reminded me of a classic Celtic myth, in some ways, and a little of Beowulf in terms of the quest and the world building, as well as poetic epics like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with some of the characterisation and the importance placed on superstition and the sea. The story clearly had great influences, and they shone through. It also had the classic coming of age and journey motifs that we’ve come to associate with fantasy fiction, which I expected; and which were done with great style and panache.
I enjoyed the characterisation, and the way all the supporting cast have a strong development arc throughout the story. For a short book, pitched at the YA age range, I think this was very well done. There was a really strong sense of each character as an individual in A Wizard of Earthsea, and I enjoyed the complexity of their different personalities. There was nothing extraneous, and every character, the nuances of their interactions, all added something to the plot.
I really enjoyed the way the plot played with ideas about fate, and the shadow self. These are complex themes for a children’s book, but it didn’t feel weighty.
So much for what I liked… The plot itself dragged for me. I mean, the endless sailing… It was interesting at first, but after a while I was definitely fed up . I wanted something to happen, some big twist or some more action. There was also no subplot, which might have made the story more interesting and added a bit more colour. It was very focused, which is fine, but that also left the story feeling a little thin.
I felt the descriptions of magic and Ged’s schooling were rushed through, and lacked convincing detail. The school itself and the town were relatively undefined, in comparison to the amount of descriptive language dedicated to land and seascapes. I wanted more in order to feel connected to the character’s personal journey.
Ged himself isn’t a particularly likeable character. He is interesting, and there was definitely strong character growth through his coming of age and redemption story. However, it’s hard to like someone who doesn’t connect with other people, doesn’t make friends, has no real sense of his past or history (he just seemed to shrug it off), and grows out of all his human fallibility and flaws. However, the supporting characters were more likeable, and did balance out the boringness of Ged.
I’m on the fence about the writing style. It was hard to get into, because it was quite convoluted. I’m not sure many modern children, or teenagers, would find A Wizard of Earthsea an easy read. At the same time, it gave the book an aged feel, which added authenticity to the classic quest motif.
Overall, I enjoyed the story, and I admired the imagination and inclusion and handling of complex themes and ideas. The worldbuilding and characterisation was excellent, and the style and descriptive language truly lovely. This was a book that challenged me and made me think. However, for me it also lacked any sense of fun. That’s important in fantasy, I think. The endless sailing dragged, and I wanted more fullness to the story.
I’m glad I gave it a go, but I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll bother with the other three books in the series…
My Rating: 3.5/5
Rubeus’ Rating: 1/5
There were no dogs, and he didn’t find the cover tasty.