Book Title: The Tombs of Atuan
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: Enthralling!
My full impressions: The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the Earthsea trilogy (sequel to A Wizard in Earthsea), and in many ways, it’s the stronger novel because it’s more tightly focused on a single time and place. Whereas the first book was all about the growth of Ged “Sparrowhawk”, a powerful wizard, this story is about a woman named Asha who is the High Priestess of the Nameless Ones, a group of old gods of darkness and unbeing who have a sacred temple out in the frozen desert in a place shared with worshipers of the Godking, including a corrupt priestess named Kossil who does not truly believe in anything but her own power and influence.
Sparrowhawk doesn’t appear in the story until the midpoint, and when he finally does show up, it’s as a thief breaking into the Tombs of Atuan attempting to steal half of a sacred ring that is among the tombs’ greatest treasures. Asha ensnares him in the tombs and plans to murder him as a sacrifice, but his ability to intrude in this sanctum becomes problematic to her and makes her begin to question her faith and devotion to the Nameless Ones. When Sparrowhawk helps her to remember her true name and to cast doubt on her role as a new vessel for the reincarnated priestess, she decides to help him, but at a great personal cost.
There’s a lot of subtext to this story, and there seems to be quite a bit of influence from Jungian psychology, which is focused on the idea of shadows (the parts of ourselves that we unhealthily deny, but must embrace to be whole) and personas. In the first book, Ged’s battle with his shadow resulted in the two merging and becoming whole. In this second book, Asha lives in the darkness and is in constant turmoil because of the dark things she has done, and she has to confront not only who she is and has been, but which persona she will adopt in her new life.
But aside from that, it’s just a powerfully written story. The setting is interesting and imaginative, and the characters are strong and memorable. You could read this book without knowing anything about Ged’s adventures and still enjoy it, and Asha / Tenar is an extremely well-crafted protagonist whose journey from being a bondswoman of evil to a free woman of the world beyond is incredibly interesting.