A Wizard of EarthSea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first novel in the EarthSea Cycle series.
“A novel that mostly stands the test of time and is just as enjoyable today as it was when I first read it. Brings back lots of memories, that’s for sure.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
I still remember when I first picked up a copy of Ursula K. LeGuin’s EarthSea trilogy from my high school library. I was in freshman year at the time, and if I remember correctly, I had just finished reading books such as Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. So EarthSea had a fair bit of expectations to meet. The trilogy proved to be a very surreal experience, with characters and events I’d never come across before, more so as someone who was still stepping into the wider world of science fiction and fantasy. That was all twelve years ago, and the experience proved to be a formative one, something that has stayed with me to this day. I re-read the novel just a few days ago, and I like to think that the novel is as enjoyable as I remember, with the added caveat that I’ve had a chance to sample a big piece of the SFF pie by now.
Right off the bat, the most striking thing about the novel is that it has a very non-traditional writing style. The author focuses on exposition far more than dialogue. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that 15% of the novel is dialogue at most, with the rest all being exposition. It creates a very interesting narrative atmosphere that feels rather uncomfortable at times. It is something I struggled with initially, but after about 80 pages or so, I got used to it finally and didn’t mind it so much.
With Ged, he made for a rather interesting character in and of himself. Sure, he starts off as a somewhat cliched character, someone with a lot of inherent magical power, greater than some of the most powerful of all mages in the world, and so he gets a lot of… leniency when certain events happen. But the interesting element is in how he deals with everything that is thrown his way. The novel is a character-study of Ged. We follow him throughout, see everything from his perspective. We see him at his best, at his worst. We even see his redemption and are made privy to his innermost fears via the author’s particular writing style.
While at times the characterisation seemed thin, it never felt felt too sparse. And that’s largely because the exposition isn’t all straight exposition but has a very poetic feel to it in terms of structure. You could even call it lyrical I suppose, but I’m not so into poetry that I could make that kind of a comparison in benefit of A Wizard of EarthSea. Suffice to say, the way that the author teases out the backstory and world-building is a very unique approach. In terms of comparisons to other fictional works, the only one I can see as being anywhere close enough would be J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion (edited by his son Christopher Tolkien). Very, very similar feel between the two works.
And this brings me to another thing that I really liked about this novel: the world-building. Being somewhat of a short-book, A Wizard of EarthSea nevertheless has a very complex and rich world. Very few of the tropes of epic fantasy exist in this world and there are a lot of new things to explore here, such as the magic system, which is based on the true names of all things. Each person, each element of nature has its own true name and knowing that true name gives a mage power. As with Ged’s character, this kind of magic is really interesting. The whole mystery surrounding true names makes for a very engaging read.
Of course, not everything is rosy here, and A Wizard of EarthSea definitely has some drawbacks. For one, I’ve already mentioned the writing style, and the lack of significant dialogue in comparison to the exposition. Then, there are the pacing issues. Sometimes whole years pass in a sentence or two, and sometimes even a day is dragged out over multiple ages. And there are no natural breaks between these time-jumps. And finally, at times it seems that the novel is just dragging itself out, extending events far beyond what they need to be.
All the same, this is definitely an “easy” novel to read and it doesn’t exactly get boring at any point, which is all you can really ask for. Twelve years ago, I’d have given the novel a higher score, but I’ve since read some truly great novels, novels which are much more approachable and make for a much more thrilling ride. The novel doesn’t hold up as well in comparison to them, but on its own, its pretty good, and I can kind of see how and why some people would regard it as a classic.