Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Starting this month, book reviews will become a bigger part of my blog. I’ll be posting reviews of both classics and contemporary work, including some indie novels. You can expect a new review at the end of every month. 

Before I begin, I want to go over the style of my reviews. I don’t give star ratings or anything like that. I appreciate how others choose to quantify a book, but I don’t think I’m very good at it. Instead, I’ll discuss each book within three simple categories: an introduction, what works for me, and what doesn’t. I will never include major spoilers or post a review for an indie book without the permission of the author. Additionally, there will be a TL;DR at the end of each review

 


Ready to go? Because I am. I’m starting my new review series off with a classic: A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. LeGuin. 

Introduction


A Wizard of Earthsea is a classic novel by beloved fantasy and science fiction author Ursula K Le Guin. It stars a young wizard named Ged, whose potential greatness catches the eye of higher mages. Ged is adventurous and kind, but he makes all the mistakes of a blundering boy – he’s impatient, often irreverent, and competitive to his detriment. One night, as a result of his arrogance, he accidentally unleashes an evil shadow on the world. 

The story follows Ged as he flees across Earthsea, terrified that the shadow will consume him. Along the way, he has excellent adventures and gains a reputation that spreads across Earthsea, but he doesn’t feel as great as those around him proclaim. Ged spends much of the story feeling like a coward. 

Ged is a charismatic character. Throughout the story, he does good deeds for the people he encounters, but is always burdened by his fear of the shadow. Still, we see his skill in magic grow, as well as the slow rebuilding of his confidence. Eventually, he turns to stand against this shadow. He starts off as an arrogant young boy, but ends the story as a self-actualized man. 

What Works


LeGuin’s world is stunning. Ged visits many places in his journey across Earthsea, and while only a small amount of time is spent at most of them, LeGuin’s expertly crafted prose makes them all feel alive. It truly feels like Ged is traveling through a real, thriving world. Fans of modern fantasy will see familiar things, too – In this forty year old book, they will find a wizard school, as well as “truename” style magic, which is popular in role playing games.


That brings me to the next point: the prose. LeGuin is a strong writer, in both flow and word choice. My favorite scene is probably her description of the Dragon of Pendor. Her impactful description marks the dragon as a terrible threat, which makes it deliciously satisfying when Ged confronts the situation with guile, not raw power. 

I enjoyed Ged as the protagonist.  He begins the story as a clever, spirited, but arrogant child. Others around him see great potential and would like to see his intelligence and caring nature shine through, but his big mouth often shouts over his better traits. After he unleashes the shadow, he is both humbled and fearful. His immense power as a wizard is overshadowed by his brokenness and search for peace. While others regard him as a hero, he doesn’t feel like one. 

This characterization creates excellent tension, especially near the climax. I rooted for Ged the entire time. Every time he stumbled, I winced. Every time he was defeated, I mourned with him. When he finally triumphed, I was finally able to relax my shoulders and unclench my jaw.

LeGuin’s excellent framing deserves a mention, too – while Ged performs acts of heroism throughout the story, many are passed over quickly, with the dragon being an exception. I thought that was interesting – a fantasy protagonist whose failings and remorse receive more attention from the author than their heroism.

 

What Doesn’t Work


I genuinely loved this book, but there is one obstacle that will keep many from enjoying it: the writing style. Earthsea was published in 1968, and includes stylistic choices that have fallen out of favor. The novel is third person limited, but it keeps its distance from Ged in certain ways.

We are told his feelings more than shown them. There is also a lot of exposition that tells us what happened between one adventure and the next. These are the in-between pieces where most of the worldbuilding lies. They’re written quite well, but I’ll admit that I’m far more forgiving of this in classic novels than I am in contemporary ones.

The pace is also slow. I personally enjoy slow burn fantasy novels and the richness of detail that come with them, but not everybody is going to. If you’re looking for a quick, light on its feet fantasy romp, Earthsea isn’t the book for you.

 

Final Thoughts


Earthsea is an excellent choice for fans of classic fantasy. Some will find the old-school narrative style dry, but those who don’t mind it will find an immersive, tense, and reflective hero’s journey about A Wizard of Earthsea learning the importance of being whole.

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