Book Title: The Farthest Shore
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: 2/22/17
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In a word: Interesting
My full impressions: I’ll say right off the bat that this conclusion to the Earthsea trilogy (following The Tombs of Atuan) did not enthrall me quite as capably as the previous novels did, and a large part of it was due to the structure of the story, which was more of a traditional hero’s journey but which felt as if it was missing a book before it to set up the conflict. As a result, I was left feeling a bit cheated when the story finished, and I flat-out refuse to read the later sequel Tehanu because it seems entirely unnecessary. (That I’ve also heard that it’s complete rubbish doesn’t help stoke my interest.)
The story is about a young man named Arren who comes to Roke to deliver a message to Archmage Ged “Sparrowhawk” about an encroaching darkness in the world. What this darkness is or how it is endangering Earthsea isn’t specified in much detail, and Ged decides to venture out on his own with Arren as his bodyguard to investigate why. The story then meanders into a rather aimless travel story that explores the two characters and their differing points of view, but which waits until near the end of the book to set up the conflict and establish the villain, a wizard Ged once faced and thwarted who’s returned with a plan to use a form of necromancy to conquer the world.
Much like Ged and Asha/Tenar in the previous books, Arren is a flawed character who has to overcome his weaknesses to discover his true heroism. He is a character to whom acts of heroism come quite easily, but to whom challenges and adversity are formidable, to the point that he wishes for death when things get tough and has trouble understanding why the powerful Archmage Ged refuses to use magic as anything but a last recourse. Arren is extremely perceptive and provides an interesting take on a hero, often using his brains instead of his might to resolve problems. But, since the villain comes so late in the story and because Arren is largely cut off from the conversations with dragons and the more metaphysical qualities of the climax, he takes a backseat to Ged later on in the book.
The ending, too, is extremely disappointing, since it results in a great personal cost for Ged, but does little to satisfactorily resolve Arren’s quest. The hero’s journey is fulfilled, but the return home happens so quickly that it’s hard to see how Arren has really changed and how his adventure will shape his rule as a future king. Ged, meanwhile, disappears into obscurity and legend, and the damage done to his society at Roke is never fully resolved or repaired within the story, which seems odd.
Where I do think this book trumps its predecessors is in its depth. This is very much a book about what it means to die, and why mortality is a necessary product of life. The duality of life and death contributing to what the book refers to as the Equilibrium is very important here, and when a character dies, how it weighs upon the story is extremely important. There is an entire section where Ged and Arren experience a culture caught up in the use of the drug Hazia, and their walking, wasting living death is remarked upon in profound ways. There is a character in the same section to whom Ged gives a new life through a new name, but it requires her to discard her old one, and that, too, is seen as a mode of death. Even the dragons, who are great and immortal, face different forms of death and impotency in this story, and the results are both fascinating and deeply felt.
In the end, it’s an interesting book, but it doesn’t feel like the end of a trilogy so much as a sequel to an errant story about Ged and the villain Cob. (I don’t believe a short story or additional novel ever featured their initial interaction; it’s referred to in passing in this book.) That’s really too bad, because the dynamic between Ged and Cob feels like it deserves its own focus since they are both two sides of the same coin, and Cob is almost a parallel version of the younger Ged who chose the path of corrupt power over the path of wise restraint.
A more conventional approach, I suppose, would have been to bring back Ged’s rival from the first book and make him the villain. That might have made up for what was missing here (though it certainly would have changed the story). But it might have been more effective, too, if this had been less about telling Arren’s story in a hero’s journey style and more about showing Ged’s frustrations in passing on his own torch to a world where magic might not be the salvation it once had been.