Saturday, January 8, 2011

Brilliant World-Building

*I had written this before Christmas break, but I had no time to post while at my parents' house, and I've only just regained the Internet at my apartment. More books read in December should be posted soon.

The Earthsea Trilogy
by Ursula LeGuin
Consisting of: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore
Newbery Honor Book 1972 (The Tombs of Atuan)
National Book Award for Children's Books 1973 (The Farthest Shore)

Although called a trilogy, each of LeGuin's three novels can easily stand on its own, as there is little connecting the two, aside from the setting and the presence of the character Ged (the protagonist of the first novel). Themes of overcoming self, as well as darkness, are the only other similarities throughout.

The first installment, A Wizard of Earthsea, recounts the childhood and youth of Ged (better known as Sparrowhawk). Unlike the other two installments, which each focus on one major event of his career, this one reads more like an entry in a dusty tome of history, detailing only events that are important to Ged's later career. As such, there is little dialogue, internal or external, which makes it difficult for readers to relate or even care about Ged's exploits.

The main story thread concerns Ged's quest to rid the world of a shadow, which he unwittingly released when attempting an esoteric resurrection spell. Along the way, the cocky boy learns the value of humility and the beauty in simplicity, growing into an adult, as well.

The Tombs of Atuan, which focuses on the retrieval of an ancient ring, is the strongest of the three, I feel. As it spans the shortest amount of time (for the majority of the novel, anyway), it can dedicate time to character development that the other novels cannot. Because of this, I feel I know more about the priestess Tenar, who only appears in this installment, than I do about Ged. I don't want to fault LeGuin for this, as I think her intent was to create an interesting world and its history, not necessarily to create complex characters to inhabit it, and in that she succeeded magnificently.

The final installment is a good balance between the other two Earthsea books, as it permits the narrative to meander a bit while still attempting to develop the character of Arren, the young prince accompanying Ged to the end of the world. While both the third and first installments involve quests where the characters sail to the ends of the earth, due to its dependency upon a limited amount of time, The Farthest Shore is better able to present an entertaining adventure than its predecessor. The main theme of death is also handled well, though if I were more invested in the characters it would have had more impact.

As mentioned before, what LeGuin does beautifully is world-building. Her characters are simply vessels to transport the reader to the richly detailed worlds of her imagination, which can only be compared with Tolkien in terms of scope.

Series Grade: B+

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