Book review

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

~200 pages/6 hours | Craftsman Audio Books | Fantasy/Children’s/YA(ish)

 

The digest: I’m so glad to have finally entered into the world of Earthsea. Le Guin’s story is fast-paced and splendidly-written, with clear overarching messages and nods towards philosophy throughout. I highly recommend you pick it up if you haven’t already.

 

I listened to the 2008 audiobook published by Craftsman Audio Books, narrated by Karen Archer. Archer did an outstanding job here and I highly recommend that if you do choose to listen to an audiobook then you pick hers up!

 

From the book’s Goodreads page:

“Ged, the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, was called Sparrowhawk in his reckless youth.

Hungry for power and knowledge, Sparrowhawk tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.”

 

As is standard fare in my reviews nowadays; because I did enjoy the book overall I’ll start with a few negatives before moving onto the positives.

 

What was less than great?

  • The character development is… a bit meh for the most part. This is partly explained by the style of the storytelling: we are meant to believe that a narrator is telling the tale of Ged quite some time after the events of this adventure, just reflecting back on one of his formative experiences.. With such a narrator, we obviously wouldn’t see the ins-and-outs of each character but I’d expect to see at least a little bit more growth. Maybe not even growth, maybe just more time spent with a couple more characters so we learn more about them. A Wizard of Earthsea is not at all a character-driven plot in the way that any of the Wayfarers books are.
    • The cast is rather nebulous, with Ged alone being a constant presence throughout the novel. A fair few of the wider cast of characters mentioned early on seem to have significance when we first see them, but then we never see them again. They might re-appear in later novels, but it felt like we spent a disproportionately long time with them – as if groundwork was being done but no pay-off was present.
  • The plot moves at such a pace that we miss out on large parts of Ged’s life. They’re passed over in a sentence or paragraph here and there, which for me is a bit too much telling and not showing.
    • Similarly, a couple of the episodes within the larger narrative come and go so fast that a sense of wonder/excitement/danger doesn’t build to what it could have been.
  • There isn’t much action at all. Beyond a couple of a couple of scenes, action is not something you will find in A Wizard of Earthsea. I haven’t deducted any marks for this, but I think it important for potential readers to know that contrary to what you might imagine from a book with dragons on the front of its cover (in some editions), the problems here are almost always solved using brainpower self-restraint.
  • Bit of a side note, really: it seems that A Wizard of Earthsea has influenced a number of more recent fantasy novels – especially those aimed at a younger audience. This is obviously not a negative of this novel at all, but some reviews seem to deduct marks for its familiar content. It would be stupid to lower the score of this novel because later writers have taken elements from it. 

 

What did I enjoy?

  • One of my favourite parts of A Wizard of Earthsea is its exploration of a wide range of philosophical approaches to problems and solutions. We see sycophants, kids trying to do the right thing (even when they don’t know what that is), the search for inner peace, and man’s continuous struggle against the unknown. That’s a LOT of deep-thinking for what is marketed as a children’s story.
  • The worldbuilding is decent. Geographically we see a lot of focus on islands and mountain communities, with the threat (and history) of war and invasion in the foreground. The way we learn about this isn’t all that interesting in itself, but one can’t deny that Le Guin clearly knew what she was doing and had a much larger world mapped out in her head.
    • My favourite part of the worldbuilding is the magic system. It features around knowing the name of that which you wish to manipulate and has a focus on equivalency. Every act of magic changes the balance of the world and so it is important for wizards (and similar magic users) to temper what they do.
  • Le Guin’s style is very accessible and flows incredibly easily without feeling dumbed down. Truth be told, the story isn’t particularly complicated and the writing reflects this very well. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly poetic or elegant (as some reviewers do), but
  • The pacing of A Wizard of Earthsea is as much a positive as a negative. The downside is discussed above, but the benefit is that we never have time to get bored with what’s going on at all. From trial to trial, Ged never rests, and the speed of events means that we are likewise always engaged with what’s going on.
    • However, it isn’t a constant rush and when the narrative requires it, the story is more than happy to slow down and allow the characters to think about what is going on.
    • The pacing reflects what we would expect to see in a historiographer or biographer re-formulating someone’s history from fragmentary evidence, which must be what Le Guin was going for. In this respect, the pacing perfectly suits the tone and aim of the novel.
  • The ending is at once both satisfying and intriguing. We now know this little part of Ged’s history, but what came between it and him becoming ‘the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea’ is a complete mystery. I’m excited to jump into the sequel later in 2019!
    • To explain how it is satisfying in any detail would be to ruin the novel’s conclusion. I felt like it neatly wrapped up key elements of the story of this book whilst also providing a not-so-subtle (but not in-your-face) take on the human condition. The sentiments of the final paragraph will stay with me for a long time, I am sure.

 

Conclusion: 4/5. There is no doubt in my mind that A Wizard of Earthsea is a deeply engaging and thought-provoking philosophical study wrapped up in the guise of a children’s novel. I highly recommend it to those who are fans of fantasy, children’s, and/or just after a really accessible and intriguing plot.

 

 

Thanks for dropping by 🙂 Have you read any of the Earthsea books? What sort of thing can I look forward to in sequel novels? (No hard spoilers, though, please!)

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

  1. “A Wizard of Earthsea is not at all a character-driven plot.” Oooh I didn’t know that! I always thought it was similar to Robin Hobb’s work. I haven’t read the books (though I did watch the movies and those were…a bit lacking) but from what I’ve heard, there IS quite a bit of growth for the MC as the series goes on! And I seriously love how your reviews are so detailed but still succinct. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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