Monday, November 22, 2010

A Wizard of Earthsea, a Review

Ursula Le Guin is a name any fantasy reader would be familiar with. Her critically acclaimed Left Hand of Darkness was both a Hugo and a Nebula Award winner, and is now considered one of the SFF Masterworks. Outside of the Hanish universe where LHoD is set, Le Guin's rather famous for her Earthsea novels, of which begins with A Wizard of Earthsea.

A Wizard of Earthsea was written in 1968 and is the first book of the Earthsea cycle. It is an early coming-of-age fantasy novel that follows the life and development of a powerful young wizard named Ged. When Ged's wild magic saves his small village from destruction, rumors of his power spread throughout the island of Gont. 'Ere long, Ogion the Silent, another famous wizard, appears and wants to take the boy under his tutelage. For Ged, who's always dreamed of being grand and famous, his life will never be the same.

Reading A Wizard of Earthsea, it's obvious that many of our modern fantasy writer's have borrowed ideas from Le Guin. (Though, to be fair, I'm unsure whether Le Guin created many of the following, or if she, too, borrowed from others.) For example, names are extremely important things in Earthsea. If a wizard learns the true name of something or someone, he will gain absolute control over it. Because of this, naming is an important aspect to the magic system. (I'm thinking of Eragon, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, and even the glorious Pat Rothfuss' Name of the Wind.) Also, young Ged travels to a school for budding wizards, where he learns the rules and ways of wizardry. There he runs into a bully and the two have a less than friendly relationship. (Uh, Harry Potter and, gulp, The Name of the Wind.)

Now, these two things don't necessarily dampen my impressions of any of the examples mentioned above, but they do have me thinking. How crucial is Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea to fantasy? Also, how many other older fantasy worlds have been borrowed from? (Tolkien will remain unmentioned.*)

The real question is does Le Guin's world hold up? Is her story worth the read? Was I entertained? The answers are yes, yes, and yes. The writing is simple and easy, perfect for any YA-curious readers or someone looking for something light. The plot is rather predictable for the most part, but it still was paced well enough that I wanted to know if my expectations were correct. There are some scenes that are spectacular, getting to see the actual magic work and witness its repercussions. Ged is a hero with flaws, but he's relatable, too. And I never really felt bored reading, even though the book is forty-two years old.

Yet, at the same time, the novel is dated. I can't say Ged has taken up a spot in my favorites as far as heroes go. I can't get past the cliches that jump out at me. Still, the geography and lands of Earthsea were actually pretty cool, and I enjoyed discovering the new world with Ged.  Le Guin does a wonderful job with the sea and the islands.

Overall, A Wizard of Earthsea is an incredibly short read. Its story is fast-paced and exciting, full of excellent scenes and a semi-interesting protagonist. If you're interested in reading an older fantasy, one that may have greatly impacted some modern fantasy writer's minds, then check out Le Guin's classic. I'm not sure when I'll read the sequels, or if I even will, but this compulsive read was entertaining.

*Of course, by doing this I have mentioned him.


Anonymous said...

*while we are reading Tolkien, we can't help but pause over potential influences; same happened when were reading C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. makes me glad that Natalya is hearing these predecessors/classics.

That Ursula comes from an Anthropological background is evident in her work and makes her world-building, characterizations, and her explorations of the human condition fantastic. also, she is flat out entertaining as a storyteller. can you tell I'm a fan? 'The Birthday of the World and Other Stories' is a collection of short stories where she has gone back to revisit some of the places she wrote about in her novels.


logankstewart said...

This was the first Le Guin I've read, though I think I'd like to read Left Hand of Darkness someday. And indeed, her anthropological background definitely is obvious in Earthsea. I really felt like she did a phenomenal job at the worldbuilding and cultures.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

There are more than a few fantasy mainstays that I have never had any interest in exploring, and this is one of them. Thanks for the honest review. I can't say I'm in any danger of adding it to the list any time soon.

logankstewart said...

@Kris: Aye, this was definitely a compulsive read. I was at the library, saw how short it was, and had it checked out 'ere I had time to think.

Agreed, though. There are plenty of mainstays that I have no interest in reading (i.e. Terry Goodkind), but also plenty that I want to read, too.

ibeeeg said...

This book (series) has been on my tbr list for a while. I now have moved it to my Book Christmas Wish List. I think these will be a good one for me, and for my daughter.

Very cool to see a review about it.

logankstewart said...

@ibeeeg: Oh yeah, I definitely think it's something a younger reader would like. Hope you and your daughter enjoy it.