Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This classic fantasy novel, written in 1967 by one of the world’s top sci-fi/fantasy authors… just didn’t grab me. It’s well-composed, with a nicely fleshed-out world and an interesting power structure for the wizards and some cultural details, but the story of the Sparrowhawk’s beginnings left me wondering, “so why should I care?”
I think I’m ruined for this book by the Harry Potter era. It’s just hard to get attached to a boy wizard in this style, after I’ve gotten accustomed to the very feelings, friendships, and trials of a different, more relatable wizard. The whole “true name” thing may have been a cool storytelling concept, but it just serves as one more layer between the reader and the character–what’s his name again? (The main character has no less than three different names throughout the book!). It’s also told in a rather detached third-person; we only vaguely get a sense of Sparrowhawk/Ged’s feelings at any given time, and we are invited not to feel with him but to watch as he fumbles around. Throw in the jumpy time setting (following not a calendar but whenever the action seems likely to hit) and you’ve got a story I just never felt comfortable in.
I finished the book for the lessons of the craft I could learn, not from any deep affinity for it. In fact, I found the author’s afterward far, far more compelling and approachable than the rest of the story–I’d have rated THAT 5-stars!
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just that this book had its heyday in a different time, in a very different genre fiction landscape. It’s certainly not LeGuin’s fault; she’s a beautiful, if impassive, author who has my utmost respect. But I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up the rest of the series.

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2 responses to “Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

  1. I quite enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea, but the second one, The Tombs of Atuan felt like it would just never end. I don’t think era is the problem, though. I got the idea from these two books (and some stuff I’ve read about Le Guin herself) that Le Guin focuses more on the underlying themes than on the story. Rather than tell the story and letting the themes express themselves in a subtle manner, it seems like she decided on a theme and then tried to tack the story onto that, most likely due to her very firm belief that fantasy as a genre exists to speak critically to and of the real world (which it does, but sometimes telling a story for the sake of telling a story is also okay). This is, of course, a very superficial analysis and I could be completely off the mark, but this is my impression.

    • Hm, I can see that. “Left Hand of Darkness” was most certainly about concepts rather than characters. But that worked for me while this just…didn’t. On your recommendation, I think I’ll pass on the sequel too.

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