Tehanu

by Ursula K. Le Guin

Cover image

Series: Earthsea #4
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Copyright: 1990
Printing: September 2001
ISBN: 0-689-84533-2
Format: Mass market
Pages: 281

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Like the previous Earthsea books, Tehanu stands on its own sufficiently to be enjoyable without reading the previous books. It does, however, pick up directly after the events of The Farthest Shore and some parts of the story will be less confusing if one reads the previous books first.

Tehanu returns to the characters and some of the structure of The Tombs of Atuan, which for me was immediately a point in its favor. Tenar is perhaps my favorite of Le Guin's Earthsea characters, and leaving the characters in one region for the whole story and letting the setting fully develop adds a lot to the story for me. Ged is present again as a supporting character, letting the narrative focus on Tenar exclusively (except for the excellent ending).

Newly a widow after a quiet life as a farm wife, Tenar adopts a badly burned, disfigured, and abused girl, trying to win her trust and find a life for her as well as help a crippled Ged. In that search, she confronts her decisions about her own life and place in the world. Le Guin moves farther away from traditional fantasy plots and instead writes a story about the quest for identity after a trauma or a significant change in life. There is still a touch of clear-cut conflict, including villains about whom there is no moral ambiguity whatsoever, but this is background structure. The conflict just highlights the need to put the past behind and the struggle to balance the often unfair strictures of society or capability with complex, mixed desires.

A secondary theme is prejudice and discrimination, and Le Guin confronts some of the inequities of the world of Earthsea that were present but largely unremarked-on in the earlier books. Why are all wizards male? Is there something necessarily male about about wizard magic? Is it just for witches to be distrusted and treated as lesser practitioners? Both Tenar and Therru, the child, also face the prejudice of the small-town environment of Gont, where the different or strange is treated with suspicion and at best left alone, if not actively feared. The questions are raised but not answered and the problems worked around rather than solved, but there are hints that the question of female wizards may come to a head in future stories. I hope so, as the setup and teaser in the ending were wonderful and intriguing.

Tehanu is written in Le Guin's typical quiet, precise style. The narrative voice took a few pages for me to get used to, and then I found it particularly effective at creating a sense of place and an emotional context. The tone is very introspective and contemplative, a different reading experience than a plot-driven story and one of the things I liked best about The Tombs of Atuan. The world has no easy answers, and problems of identity can't be solved with simple action. Tenar understands that, and she thinks deeply about what she does and why.

I like the Earthsea character studies better than the travelogue adventures. While this didn't hit my personal buttons quite as directly as The Tombs of Atuan, it is another excellent story, adding depth and nuance to the Earthsea universe and featuring a wonderfully handled ending. Highly recommended.

Followed by Tales from Earthsea.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2004-12-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21