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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Wizard of Earthsea, 22 Aug. 2012
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This review is from: A Wizard of Earthsea (Puffin Books) (Paperback)
Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea is an example of short form fantasy that encapsulates all of my more favoured genre aesthetics - a bleak and ambiguous approach to history, psychologically impactful monsters, a sense of massive scale, a barrenness of landscape and a convincing depth of characterisation - and does all of this, without, thankfully, running to 900 pages.

I'm wary of making any grand claims that Le Guin was, in 1968, attempting to subvert a genre whose Tolkien-derived clichés were only just beginning to be instituted, but there's definitely something gloriously cavalier and anti-establishment about both A Wizard of Earthsea's form and its content. Nowhere is this more immediately apparent than in Le Guin's treatment of mapping. Epic fantasy has a strange hang-up tendency to offer the post-war comfort of relegating evil to a definite and confined place on a map (c.f. Mordor, D'hara, Northland etc.) - and perhaps it's my own historical imperative of being a post-9/11 reader that's doing the talking here - but I find this model simplistic, over-used and somewhat of a fop to nationalism and the idea of evil as exclusively external alien otherness. (I should note that I have no problem with fantasy mapping or imagined geography as a concept - it's the awful metaphors for good and evil that get pasted over the top of these maps that really grind my gears). Of course such an established and rigid convention of mapping (good is here, evil is here, monsters be here etc.) paves the way for some wonderful tom-foolery at the hands of more ironically self-aware writers - nowhere more so than in the `evil' empire of Grenbretan featured in Moorcock's Hawkmoon - a fantastic mapped inversion of post-war geopolitical paranoias. A Wizard of Earthsea takes a subtler, but nonetheless powerfully disdainful approach to subverting this perverse tradition.

I knew I was going to enjoy the book, then, when I encountered the wonderfully indecipherable Jackson Pollock mess that is the mandatory hand-drawn map printed at the start of the text. Imagine tearing Middle Earth into a thousand pieces and re-assembling it at random, and you'll have some idea of the paratextual cartography that dominates A Wizard of Earthsea. The scrawly, scatter-gun map with its too-small-to-read annotations, half obscured by the crease of the binding, is of absolutely no use to the reader - neither as an aid to narrative clarity nor as an aid to a visualisation of the world's landscapes - but that's entirely the point. Its narrative uselessness functions as an ironic and playful exposé of this most drab convention of the genre.

But Le Guin's playfulness doesn't end here. There's a beautifully post-modern dismissal of these conventions in the actual narrative - specifically the ending - which takes place (I kid you not) off the edge of the map. It's perfect fodder for imaginative fantasy, and not only pokes fun at the (anachronistic) medieval notion of a flat earth, but makes a more theoretical statement about the limited ability of these fantasy maps to aid or contribute to narrative coherency. Just as the novel ends, when one might arguably rely on the map the most, the map becomes its most useless. It's extraordinary.

***

In plotting, A Wizard of Earthsea melds the more familiar tropes of high fantasy (faux-medieval setting, dragons, wizards etc.) with what can only be described as a penchant for those darkest aspects of Weird fiction-inspired horror. The protagonist, Ged, is a young wizard who, in an ego-driven attempt to impress his classmates, hubristically summons a face-less, name-less, tentacular black monstrosity from some unknowable cosmic place of panic and violence: it would sit comfortably within Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. And it's this monstrosity summoned from within, rather than any invading dark wizard with his deformed armies of foreign others, that stands as the primary antagonist. The book is essentially a bildungsroman; Ged's quest to locate and overcome this dark, passion-ridden and uber-brutal creature stands as a metaphor for the suppression of the id and his arrival into adult life and responsibility.

Only one man's life is at stake; and, as I've stated, there's no mad, demonic force trying to destroy the world without ever quite explaining how it is they'd benefit from such an endgame. While this offers a pleasing alternative to the standard fantasy plot, the tight focus on one individual does come at the cost of weaker characterisation elsewhere. The majority of the book's characters play to familiar type: there's the pederastic old wizard-mentor, the homosocially charged relationship with a loyal best friend, the parents who aren't themselves magical, and the usual given allotment of tavern maidens, dragon kings, helpless villagers and taciturn knights. So although A Wizard of Earthsea wilfully experiments with the praxis conventions of epic fantasy, it remains very much enamoured of the base aesthetics of the genre: it's still a rollocking good medieval Fantasy at heart.

So, yeah, A Wizard of Earthsea stands as further testament that it tends to be within the constraining vagaries of short form Fantasy that the genre is at its most experimental and subversive. The book isn't a radical genre departure, nor is it dismissive of its roots, but if like me you're feeling more-than-a-little fatigued with "epic" fantasy, I recommend you give short form a try - and this is as good a place as any to start.
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