Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.10 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.95 / 5.00

Earthsea is a land of many islands and it was on one of these, Gont, that the boy Duny was born to the village bronze-smith in Ten Alders. The youngest of seven brothers, he led a wild life until one day he overheard his aunt using strange words to call a goat down from a roof. Next day he shouted the same words at a whole herd of goats and then was terrified when the animals surrounded him and would not leave him alone. This was the first example of him using magic and it showed how powerful he would become.

The second time he used powerful magic was when the Kargs came to kill the villagers and plunder their homes. Conjuring a dense fog around the village he deceived the enemy and led them to their doom. This attracted the attention of the great wizard Ogion, who took the boy to be his apprentice and gave him his true name, Ged. But names carry great power and so the boy chose the name Sparrowhawk, and so he was known at the School on Roke and later when he went forth into the world as a fully-trained wizard. However, a student display of his hubris had released a shadow upon the world and Sparrowhawk soon found that he could not avoid it as it pursued him wherever he went.

I am not sure why I had never read this book before, as I have been aware of it for a long time, although my husband’s lack of enthusiasm may have made me avoid it. I have seen a lot of high praise for this title, and the trilogy that it begins, and felt that I should finally experience this award-winning title myself. Unfortunately, I was rather underwhelmed by the experience and I am at a loss to explain why this book is so highly praised.

The story of Ged / Sparrowhawk is full of imagination and is certainly interesting enough as a quick read, but I never really felt emotionally involved with it, and that is my major criticism. When I read a book, no matter of genre, I want to be drawn into its world and feel connected to the characters that I am following. In any type of fantasy, I expect the world to be lush with detail and diversity, challenging my imagination and presenting alternative types of life.

In Earthsea, Ms Le Guin has created a full-realized world, with a myriad of creatures and cultures for us to explore. There are languages, stories, folklore, mythology and history, as well as a variety of magics and magical abilities, and so I can understand why people mention it in the same breath as Middle Earth. However, and it amazes me to say this, Tolkien usually related his stories in such a way as to draw the reader into his world and make them feel as if they are being carried along by them. I say that this amazes me because I know that many readers find Tolkien overly wordy and too interested in descriptions, and yet he still draws me in to his works and I travel his characters’ journeys with them. I cannot say the same for A Wizard of Earthsea, which I can only compare to that densest of Tolkien’s works, The Silmarillion. I wanted to know what happened from an intellectual point of view, but felt very little inclusion in the world or empathy for the hero, Ged.

The world of Earthsea is so detailed and intricate that I felt overwhelmed by it. As Ged moves out into the world we see glimpses and flashes of the cultures he encounters, but we never get the chance to explore any of them with any depth and this was very dissatisfying, much like a single day tour of New York City. No sooner had we been introduced to something novel than we were whisked off to see another oddity. If ever there was a book where I desperately wanted much more time to immerse myself in the little details of a strange, new world, it is this one. Rather than cramming so much story into this little book, I would chosen to see perhaps only one third of the plot, with the rest of the space filled with descriptions, atmosphere-building dialogue and character work.

The characters are only lightly drawn and are mostly used for a single beat and then tossed aside with little rhyme or reason. Perhaps if I had been given a chance to understand Ogion, for example, I might have accepted his decision to simply send Ged off to the School with little argument. This was one of the most difficult decisions for me to accept, especially after Ged had shown that he was rash and had attracted the attention of a shadow creature. Maybe Ogion had valid reasons for abandoning his role of teacher for the boy, but it made little sense to me and thus tested my suspension of disbelief.

Ged himself follows the trope of the wild child who finally scares himself ‘straight’ by doing something incredibly dangerous. This was a believable, if predictable, character arc, but was about the only development that he showed during the entire story. Again, there was too little detail and I would have liked to see many more interactions between him and those around him. I truly wanted to believe that his friend Vetch actually liked Ged for some reason, but he was merely a means to an end, providing Ged with the necessary skills to finally track down the shadow.

In short, I felt as if I was reading the outline of a much more interesting book which would display a fully-realized cast of characters and lush world-building. I have seen lots of reviews describing this as a great work of fantasy, and I can see the imagination that was involved in creating it. However, I just wish that I had been given the chance to see that world rather than being told about it.

I read this as part of a whole heap of challenges:


  1. Have you watched Tales of Earthsea movie adaptation by Studio Ghibli?? I've read some of the first book, didn't finish it, but the movie is gorgeous.

  2. I'm afraid that I haven't seen the movie. I have to assume that it is heavily adapted because this book did not strike me as a good candidate for adaptation because it would be far too confusing. I might give the film a go though and see how it compares.

  3. I too felt this book was way shorter than it needed to be. Still, it is one of those that I am glad I read so that I know of what others speak of when they mention this book.

    1. I know what you mean: I felt like I really should have read this ages ago, but now I'm a 'real' fantasy fan! :)

  4. I'm going to read one of Le Guin's books for WWE Women of Genre challenge - I haven't chosen which yet but perhaps I should avoid this one?
    Lynn :D


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