Review – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin

earthseaThe first book in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea Saga is a classic of the fantasy genre. It has been many years since I first read the tale of Ged and the shadow he unleashes but the tale is just as strong as I remember.

It’s the classic tale of a young, and talented, wizard just coming into his power. Excelling at a level beyond his peers, his natural talents only fuel his pride which inevitably leads to his downfall.

Far from being the end of the story, this is the beginning of Ged’s journey across Earthsea. Rather than focusing on the ruin of the young man, this is the story of his redemption as he crosses many lands, seeking to undo the darkness that he has set upon the world.

This story sits comfortably in the genre I would describe as classic fantasy, without trying to be an epic. There are the traditional tropes present, a talking dragon who is both ancient and wise, a beautiful but long dead elf queen, but importantly these are not the focus of the story, merely embellishments on what is a very different narrative. The focus is very much on Ged’s internal conflict and is to the book’s credit that this metaphor is fully embraced and accepted with the conclusion.

What is exceptional about this tale is that it was breaking new ground at the time of writing. Before the emergence of Ged and his visits to the School on Roke, wizards were timeless, aged beings. The obvious point of reference being Tolkien’s Gandalf and Saruman. This was the first book to approach the journey of a wizard coming into his power and is often credited with the introduction of a “School of Magic”, which is the great influence behind Harry Potter and countless other magical coming-of-age stories.

I’ve really struggled to give this book an appropriate rating. It is clearly an important and influential work, forging groundwork that while influenced by Tolkien’s work takes fantasy in a new direction. Additionally, when I first read the piece it was outstanding and there is a good chunk of nostalgia attached to rereading this book for me.

This time around, the story didn’t quite grip me as I remembered. As quite a short a book, it didn’t have the depth that I now look for in a read. Perhaps my tastes have moved on, perhaps it really is a “Young Adult” book (although I hate the term), perhaps it suffers from having been read before.

If you’re a fantasy fan and have yet to read Le Guin’s Earthsea tales then it’s an absolute must-read, but compared to those books that rank among my favourites it doesn’t quite merit a place at the top of the list. I feel slightly guilty for betraying the loved memories of my younger self, but I will have to rate this a solid but not exceptional 7/10.

Reviewed by PD Richmond

 

This book can be purchased from Book Depository here:

A Wizard of Earthsea

 

3 thoughts on “Review – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin

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  1. I read the Earthsea trilogy (as it originally was before the newer books) back when I was at Secondary School in the late 80s/early 90s. I can’t say I recall much but there seemed to be a pervading sense of sadness about the whole thing. Yes magic existed but sort of vaguely and people didn’t seem to use it anymore – or if they did the book didn’t seem to focus on that.

    I don’t think I would ever go back to it as it seemed quite a joyless affair – although enjoyable enough at the time. I would mention more about the story but don’t want to give spoilers of the other books in the series!

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  2. I understand exactly where you’re coming from.

    The overriding theme of the first book of the trilogy is very much that while the Wizards hold enormous power through their magic, they shouldn’t use it.

    Indeed the very driving force of the plot is the unintended consequences of the use of power when driven by pride rather than more benevolent reasons.

    There is a distinction in her writing between, for want of a better phrase, “big” and “small” spells. “Small” spells are used all the time, to fix a boat, to mend a kettle, to bring about a better harvest. “Big” spells are to be avoided at all costs lest the magic user upset the balance of the world.

    Quite where the line is between these two is never made entirely clear but rather left as a guideline.

    A wizard might happily mend a sail with a spell, but not bring a sailor back from the dead.

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