Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Cycle is one of those fantasy masterpieces—like The Lord of the Rings and Dune—to which others are compared. The story of Ged the sorcerer and his adventures throughout a land of water, dragons and dark secrets has remained immensely popular since the first novel in the series was published nearly 40 years ago. Ostensibly for children, the books retain as much appeal for adults, and perhaps more so with their serious investigations of evil and suffering, death and the nature of maturity.
Ged's many adventures center around the search for identity: both that of Earthsea and his own. In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, he is an impetuous young wizard unwilling to learn from the wisdom of his teachers and superior mages, not very likable and certainly not very wise. In The Tombs of Atuan we begin to see a more moderate Ged, and by The Farthest Shore he has developed into a man capable of great selflessness on behalf of the slowly fading world he lives in. Tehanu continues this theme by examining those closest to Ged.
Many of the themes are quite dark. The title character of Tehanu is a girl brutally abused by her father; The Farthest Shore deals with death and our various responses to it. Yet this is also traditional high fantasy, with pirates, dragons, magic and plenty of adventure. Earthsea is a genuinely unique world, a land of islands and cities built on water, of landscapes as much affecting as affected by the wizards' spells, of customs that (unlike those in so many derivative fantasy novels) are truly exotic and unusual.
What makes the Earthsea Cycle particularly brilliant, however, is LeGuin's lyrical poetic writing style. These are not just adventures, relying on wild stories to get the reader to the end; while Ged and his friends certainly face their share of danger, the subtle narration is more concerned with evoking proper moods and scenes and developing characters that remind us of real people despite their use of magic and strange ritual, than with getting our blood pumping. Truly a modern classic, the Earthsea Cycle has been and continues to be a landmark in the often less-than-sterling fantasy genre.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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