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VINE VOICEon 14 June 2004
'The Earthsea Quartet' is really an original trilogy from the early 1970s with a sequal, 'Tehanu', published in 1990. Unfortunately, Le Guin's philosophical interests had shifted quite dramatically in the meantime, and the fourth book doesn't sit too well alongside the others.
The world of the original trilogy is based around the relationship between language and reality (anyone with an interest in literary theory will soon see why Fredric Jameson became interested in Le Guin's work). Everything and everyone has a true name, hidden from all but the most trusted because the possession of the individual's name brings power over them. The language of true names is that of creation and is the source of magical power.
The first novel, 'A Wizard of Earthsea', is a satisfying adventure that focuses upon the youthful career of Ged, the future Archmage of Earthsea. It's a fairly conventional doppleganger story in the tradition of 'Faust' and 'Jekyll & Hyde', though it has enough battles, magic and dragons to keep the story moving along.
The trilogy really takes off in 'The Tombs of Atuan'. Much darker than the first book, this is an adventure of Ged's adult life seen through the eyes of Arha, a young priestess of dark powers. The philosophy starts to become more complex here as Le Guin explores the relationship between faith and power.
'The Farthest Shore' is, for me, the high point of the series. Magic is disappearing from Earthsea and Ged, now Archmage, must find out why. The story explores the longing for immortality and the need for death in order to bring meaning to life. There is still plenty of action, but this is Le Guin at her thought-provoking best.
'Tehanu', unfortunately, abandons most of the earlier themes as Le Guin moves into a story of feminist resistance against patriarchy. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but here it feels imposed upon a world that wasn't built to take that agenda. These issues of female oppression have not been flagged up in previous books and seem to appear from nowhere in the fourth. Characterisation is also a problem: I had difficulty in seeing consistency with the Ged and Tenar of the earlier novels. 'Tehanu' is not a bad novel by any means, but it should really be treated as a stand-alone text rather than as the fourth part of a quartet.
That aside, however, this volume is worth buying for the original trilogy, which remains a high point of fantasy writing.
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on 16 July 2001
I was about 12 when I first read The Wizard of Earthsea and was instantly captivated by its beautiful prose and superbly imagistic storytelling. At the same time as carrying me away into a private world of magic and other-worldly courage, Le Guin's Earthsea stories made me yearn to be a writer myself, to cast those same awe-inspiring spells over a reader. Perhaps because of that, I did in fact become a novelist, though not for many years later.
Novels like these are not simply a question of memorable characters and strong plot. They represent a door into another world for those lucky individuals who discover and devour them while their minds are still young, still open to the limitless possibilities of language. That world, of course, is the world of the symbol, the myth, the hero...the infinite world of the imagination.
I'm 34 now, but on nights when time stands still, I take up my much-thumbed copy of the Earthsea Quartet (my original copies fell apart in the end and were honourably discharged) and lose myself in Le Guin's spellbinding voice, just as I did as a gawky young kid...scared by mathematics and playground games, but somehow utterly enchanted by the written word. Like Susan Cooper's novels, the Earthsea stories are the imaginative touchstones of an entire generation. To be passed down like family secrets to our own children...and our children's children.
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HALL OF FAMEon 1 September 2001
Long before JK Rowling stormed the best-seller lists with Harry Potter, Ursula le Guin wrote the tale of a wizard born to greatness, who leaves home and goes to study magic, with terrible consequences. A duel with Jasper, a fellow student (rich, arrogant, envious)leads to Ged's unleashing a monster upon the world which hunts him until he learns that the onyl way to defeat it is to learn its true name. (In the world of Archipelago, names give power over the named.) This is a masterpiece of fantasy fiction. Its exquisite prose is a revelation each time you read it, and all the characters though especially that of Ged, are fully rounded and realised. The world in which they live is so vivid you can taste the sea-spray and feel the fear. The moral messages are complex, concerning humility and compassion. The quartet was orginially a trilogy, and better for being so, in that Tehanu adds little. I first read this at 8, and now read it to my own 8 year old. Le Guin has influenced hundreds of other writers, but none are as good as she is.
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on 10 February 2003
Many critics of this book would like you to believe that the Earthsea novels are childrens books. I first read them as a young child and I enjoyed them very much. It was only in later years that I realised what the word "allegory" meant...
Ged is a wizard in the island archapelago of Earthsea, a land populated by strange magic and dragons just as much as it is by humans. Blessed by strange and powerful magics, he is sent to the island school of Roke where he unleashes some of the most powerful magic ever to scar the face of the earth. He has been taught that magic is a balance which must be maintained.
The first novel in the book deals with Ged's desire to be a powerful magician. In the end he has to choose where the worst evil lies, within himself or within his creations. During the course of the remaining novels, Ged uses less and less magic and eventually in old age he begins to realise the true enlightenment of the dragons.
The fourth book is without a doubt the worst in this quartet. It changes the focus away from Ged, much to the detriment of the story and the series as a whole.
The other books are delightful and should please anyone with an interest in fantasy books.
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on 31 January 2002
I first read the Earthsea Trilogy when i was 12 & it was brilliant back then. After re-reading it recently, it still held my imagination after 5 yrs ! As a huge fan of SF & Fantasy, I rate her first 3 books in my top ten with their historically evocative depiction of magic practised with the Taoist philosophy of needful action only. This 4th book was written 10 years after the previous 3 & attempts to continue on where the others left off. Unfortunately, it does a very poor job of it !
The first 3 books are "coming of age" novels whose main characters grow into adulthood through their travels & deeds as the books progress. Tehanu however, is mostly an old woman's reflections on the bitterness of her life ! The world described is a much darker & clearly sexist place as seen through the eyes of Tenar than it ever was with Ged.This is actually the best thing about the book since it does show a woman's view of a world where men rule & hold all the knowledge & wealth, but there is little to inspire the reader to challenge these views ! Tenar grudgingly accepts things as they are & does not attempt to change this status-quo. The young girl Therru is more of a mystery & there are indications that we will read great things of her in "The Other Wind" which is Le Guin's continuation of this story.
I think it would have been better to write this as a prequel to "The Other Wind" rather than as a finale to a trilogy which was quite capable of standing on its own (5 stars !). There was little reason to tie the stories of Ged & Tehanu together as she has done, although it does provide for continuity & allows her to explore Ged's lose of his magic & Tenar's bitterness towards the men in her life at the same time.
In summary I would say this book (3 stars !) is best read as an intro to "The Other Wind" rather then as part of the original Earthsea Trilogy which is a masterpiece in a class of its own. Whether Le Guin's newer work will rival it remains to be seen, but if this indication of what to expect then I fear we have already seen her best.
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on 17 December 1999
If you're an adult and you enjoy Harry Potter, here's a book you can really taste! The story could have been the inspiration for Harry's tales but the writing contains less comedy and more beauty. You'll wish you could witness the majesty of a dragon for yourself and you'll perhaps be amazed at the vulnerability as well as the sheer power of the wizards. You could live in this book...
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on 23 August 2006
When I first read the Earthsea cycle, I was about thirteen - which was far too young to be able to appreciate LeGuin's writing properly. I've heard people call her Earthsea series children's books, and I don't understand it. At thirteen, what captivated me was the flowing writing, and the beautiful world of Earthsea - but I didn't understand the plot, not really. Both 'The Farthest Shore' and 'Tehanu' were completely beyond me at that age.
In other words - don't read these books until you are at least seventeen, and can understand a bit more what LeGuin is writing about. Loss, death, powers that lurk, unknown and unknowable, in the darkness, pride, fear, all these things make up the Earthsea series. But other things as well: love, and friendship, self-sacrifice, trust, and above all a kind of joy, a wrenching painful joy, a hopeful joy despite all the bad things that have come with it.

Now, I doubt most people will understand a single word of what I'm on about - but if you've read The Lord of the Rings, you'll know exactly what I mean. Its a kind of release to read these books, an escape and a refuge. LeGuin has written not simply a story but a myth, in the same way that Tolkien did. And like Tolkien, and Patricia McKillip, and (occasionally) Marion Zimmer Bradley, what makes her tales truly great is not what she says, but how she says it. The Earthsea books should be read out loud, and when you do they sound like music.
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on 5 February 2006
This is simply some of the best fantasy writing I have ever encountered. I first read A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA when I was about ten years old. It's a marvellous and timeless story of good versus evil - the dark flipside of Harry Potter - and should be read by everyone, especially those who think children's books are the poor relations of adult fiction.
As for the complaints I've seen here from other reviewers about TEHANU, the last book in the series (though there is a fifth book now, called THE OTHER WIND, which is another must-read novel in the story of Earthsea), I have to say in Le Guin's defence that although I did think TEHANU a difficult and painful book when I was younger, as I have got older I've found it the more rewarding of the four books, and certainly the most superbly written. The prose in TEHANU and THE OTHER WIND is just ... creamy; it flows so beautifully and is thick with layered nuances and resonance and imagery so intense it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The characters are powerfully realised across the series of novels, staying with you forever. And the storylines are gripping - yes, often painful too, even heartrending, especially in TEHANU, but life is painful and there's little point pretending otherwise - and they take you on a journey to a world you can never forget, the world of Earthsea.
But whatever you do, don't watch the film based on A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA. It's embarrassingly bad and the plot has almost nothing to do with this series of books, oddly enough. Read the Earthsea books instead. If you have even an ounce of sensitivity to language and beautiful storytelling, you will never regret it.
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on 14 May 2004
Reading the Earthsea Trilogy was one of the highlights of my childhood. Discovering that it had become the Earthsea Quartet and now Quintet is one of the highlights of life today. Le Guin is the daughter of anthropologists and through all her fiction there is a deep, ingrained understanding of societies work and how they are built and evolve (or disintegrate). It's very interesting to see how her own interests have matured and deepened over the decades of writing this series - the latest Earthsea Title - The Other Wind is a fabulous rendition of concerns about gender/sexism/prejudice and the very nature of things. BUT that's for the grown ups, what really matters is that underneath all her incisive intelligence Ursula Le Guin tells a gripping, exciting and devastating series of stories that come at one in a rush of tight telling and delicately realised plots. She is simply one of the greatest writers for older children - or anyone!
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on 23 December 1999
On every level that I have known for the last 25 years the original triolgy have captured me. I find more every time I read them and the beauty of the language in it's concise but pertinate phrasing is beyond anything I could hope to achieve. As a child I was Sparrowhawk, temper and all. As a young man I too questioned with the prince and found answers in Ged's replies and reasoning. Even now I escape into a world that sometimes seems to make more sense than our own. I loved the dual options for the ending of "The farthest shore". I find that Tehanu shows the 20 year gap between it and it's predcessor but it does reunite Tenar of the ring and Ged in a realistic if not a satisfying way. Prehaps I'm still the child longing for that world of power, magic and dragons. But for everything this series has given me over the years Thankyou ULG.
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