A Wizard of Earthsea

Review: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: November 1968
ISBN: 0-553-26250-5
Pages: 183

I had previously read the first three Earthsea books, but that was about ten years ago and I didn't remember them well enough to jump into the fourth book. There is also a miniseries upcoming on the Sci-Fi Channel in the US and the books are nice and short, so this seemed like a good time to re-read them.

The memory that stuck in my mind of A Wizard of Earthsea was one of boredom. I was expecting to be pleasantly surprised, given that I've since developed more of a taste for Le Guin's slow but sophisticated writing style. As it turns out, though, memory was pretty much spot on.

I'm not quite sure why I find this book so dull. Certainly, quite a bit happens in it. The plot moves right along, visiting quite a variety of locations in a mere 180 pages and painting each one with enough description that I at least get a basic feel for the area. The main character is interesting enough, the handling of magic is quite good for creating a mythic feel, the world is different and intriguing, and the ending is satisfying (if a little bit predictable). All in all, you'd think that one had the makings of a decent young adult novel, and it's not that it's a bad book, but....

I think most of the problem I had was the narrative tone. Le Guin wanders a bit too far to the side of description for me at the best of times, but A Wizard of Earthsea can be downright dry. The story is told with a very remote, detached voice, giving the impression of someone relating a legend of events long ago, a legend that they've heard so many times that it's lost emotional impact. Ged certainly goes through strong emotions in the course of the story, but they don't seem to ever really touch the narrator, and because of that I never felt emotionally involved in the story. There is also rather a lot of telling rather than showing, particularly with regard to how Ged is feeling, and while the telling is at times quietly lyrical, I still could have used more help with seeing Ged as a living and dynamic character.

To be fair, it's possible that this book has simply lost emotional impact for me personally, since this was my second reading and I found I remembered most of the highlights even after ten years (something of a recommendation itself). Not all books survive re-reading well.

One thing I do love about this book is that the characters are never stupid. Ged is impulsive, arrogant, and makes some bad choices when young, but I never felt like he's just being dim. The experienced senior wizards act their age and conduct themselves as appropriate to their expertise, characters know what I expect them to know, people don't show off their power blatantly when there's no need to do so, and the problems that the characters have trouble with actually feel difficult. This can be sadly rare in fantasy, particularly sustained through a whole book, and Le Guin deserves a lot of credit for it.

Overall, though, I don't particularly recommend this one unless you really love Le Guin's descriptions. It's worth reading just as a springboard into the later books (which, if I recall correctly, significantly improve), but I wouldn't read it again on its own right.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Posted: 2004-11-29 23:26 — Why no comments?

This is one of those rarities for me -- a review of yours I disagree with. ;)

I personally love the narration in this book -- to me, it feels like a tone poem, or a viking saga. I agree that the storytelling conceit feels like a recitation of events from long before, but that to me is a selling point. It doesn't sound like every other knockoff of a knockoff of a knockoff of Tolkien, but instead finds its own voice. It made it distinctive, and coupled with what (at the time) was a very unique magical system just kind of enthralled me.

Well, anyhow -- you should be happier with the next book, which has a different narrative style.

Posted by Eric Burns at 2004-11-30 07:06

Really, very little of the fantasy that I read sounds like a knockoff of Tolkien. I wonder sometimes if that effect isn't significantly overstated by people, encouraged by the publishing industry. There are a few fantasy writers that do write Tolkien knockoffs (Terry Brooks, for instance), but there are so many that don't, even ones that aren't very good, and even ones that are cliched.

Take Terry Goodkind, for instance, who's certainly a producer of giant fantasy bricks. I could never confuse his world with anything Tolkien did; there are no elves, the mythology is radically different, the course of development of the heroes is radically different... it really isn't the same sort of thing at all unless one looks only at the medieval or faux-medieval setting.

Robert Jordan has more parallels (a very similar villain, some similar corruption of magic), but then goes a completely different place with it; the morality of his world is drastically different, the nature of the world and the inhabitants is radically different, there are again not the same different races, etc.

Really, I've read very few fantasy that feels like a Tolkien clone. Maybe I'm just avoiding the bad stuff fairly effectively, but the closest that I've actually read knew exactly what it was doing and was actually really good (namely Guy Gavriel Key's Fionovar Tapestry).

Posted by eagle at 2004-11-30 13:53

I totally agree with your review.

Posted by Jess at 2005-03-06 09:51

I agree with you that the narrative evokes a heraldic telling of legend, but disagree that it makes for a boring tale. I also agree that many books don't hold up for a rereading--The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, for me, was fairly boring upon rereading it. A Wizard of Earthsea, however, holds up extremely well over time. I loved it as an adolescent, and I loved it and the other two from the original series just as much if not more when I reread them (and reread them and reread them) for my Master's Thesis in Eng. Lang. and Lit. Thanks for the review all the same--interesting website.

Posted by Matt Clara at 2006-06-23 12:20

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