Book Title: A Wizard of Earthsea
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Style: Chapter book
Target Audience: YA
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy
Page Count: 144
Format: Hardcover (Trilogy collection reprint)
Reading time: 3 hours
Date Finished: 2/20/17
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In a word: Fascinating!
My full impressions: I have had a collection of “The Earthsea Trilogy” sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 15 years, waiting to be read. I came across it over the weekend and, knowing I was about to spend a lot of time on airplanes, decided to take it with me. I’ll be reading the other two books this week, but I began with the first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, which tells the story of the growth of Ged “Sparrowhawk” from a witch’s prentice in his childhood to a powerful wizard in his early 20s.
While I initially found the book difficult to get into (a common problem in the fantasy genre), the story got much more interesting as Ged entered a wizard’s academy and began questioning why he was learning some basic tricks instead of the powerful magic he believed himself capable of. Ged is a strong protagonist because he is greatly flawed, and the story is as much about his overcoming his own flaws as it is about coming of age and learning what it means to be an adult. In this story, he accidentally calls a shadow creature from another world into his own reality, and that shadow (which first hunts him, and then becomes his cunning adversary when he begins hunting it back) is a great personification of the self-doubt, powerlessness and responsibility that many people feel when they mature from the cockiness of childhood and realize that the world is bigger than they are. Ursula K. Le Guin is a powerful writer, and her story deeply resonates with me as something that reflects my own feelings growing up.
But this story is no mere allegory; it’s set in a world of islands that feel more Polynesian than English, and it’s interesting to see how Le Guin uses the tropes of fantasy writing to set the story in a place that’s all too often ignored by others working in the genre. The story does have a tendency to meander into ideas that feel unimportant and to introduce characters who quickly disappear, but since it’s largely about Ged’s journey, I can forgive the seeming lack of structure behind some of these events and instead enjoy the story as more of a travelogue that’s highlighting what’s notable and different as Ged explores places that differ greatly from his childhood home in Gont.
The best scene in the book is without question Ged’s battle with a dragon and its brood; the way the scene is written and executed is incredible, and I enjoyed the battle of wits played between the elder dragon and the young wizard, reflecting the intelligence of both characters. Another excellent scene comes when Ged visits a dark land and is nearly seduced by its beautiful queen to seize power and take her as his consort; Ged wisely sees through the trap and barely escapes with his life, despite being a victim of the queen’s plot for insurrection. Again, this is a nice subversion of fantasy tropes; Ged emerges not as the valiant hero who overthrew a plot, but as a discarded puppet who has to flee the power of evil after recognizing its attempts to ensnare or destroy him.
It’s all good stuff, and I’m excited to read the next book.