Reviews of select books by Ursula K. Le Guin


Ursula K. Le Guin  A Wizard of Earthsea [winner of the 1969 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award]
205 pp.     Parnassus

Illustrated by Ruth Robbins. Maps by the artist show the islands and seas that make up Earthsea. Sparrowhawk, the son of a bronze-smith, was born on Gont, famous for wizards who had gone forth to serve in cities throughout the Archipelago, seeking adventure, working magic from isle to isle of all Earthsea. At first Sparrowhawk studied with the great mage of Gont who gave him his true name, Ged, and, when he went to faraway Roke to the School for Wizards, the message to the Archmage read, “I send you one who will be the greatest of the Wizards of Gont if the wind blow true.” But Ged, goaded by pride and jealousy, displayed his powers before he had learned the importance of “balance and Pattern which the true wizard knows and serves and which keep him from using his spells unless real need demands.” The result, almost costing him his life, loosed an evil shadow that pursued him. Once he fled over wild seas in what “was in truth no boat but a thing more than half charm and sorcery and the rest of it mere planks and driftwood which, if he let slack the shaping-spells and the binding-spell upon them, would soon enough lapse and scatter and go drifting off as a little flotsam on the waves.” He took shelter on strange islands, fought with dragons, was lured into the cold towers of a sorcerer, and escaped from the creatures set upon him. Only when Ged turned from his flight to become hunter instead of hunted, did his power against the evil shadow increase. The book will probably be compared with classic hero stories and with various fantasies in which a complete world has been created, but it bears little resemblance to them. It is wholly original, but it has the conviction of a tale told by a writer whose roots are deep in great literature of many kinds, including traditional lore and fantasy. She is at home in the ancient world of rites and runes and “true names,” the knowledge of which gives supernatural power; of mage, wizard, and sorcerer, of feats of illusion and spells of changing. Her way with words results in prose beautiful to read and to listen to. Every word is important; fascinating unfamiliar ones (like “rushwash tea”) are often introduced, their obscurity sparking the imagination and never detracting from the clarity of the style. Older people may dismiss the book as merely another allegory, but not if they push aside their usual preoccupations and read it with a free mind. Unusual allegory or exciting quest, it is an unforgettable and a distinguished book. RUTH HILL VIGUERS

From the February 1969 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  The Tombs of Atuan [1972 Newbery Honor Book]
163 pp.     Atheneum

Illustrated by Gail Garraty. As in A Wizard of Earthsea (Parnassus), the author has created a successful high fantasy which may be read on a number of levels. Bu the storytelling is so good and the narrative pace so swift that a young reader may have to think twice before realizing that the adventures that befell Tenar were really the experiences that marked the growth of her personality. At the age of five, Tenar was taken from her parents, was renamed Arha, and began her long arduous training as the Priestess of the Tombs, since the child was considered to be the reincarnation of the last Priestess. Trained in the proper rites of the worship of the Nameless Ones, whose dwelling places were in the Tombs of Atuan, Arha learned to traverse and visit the underground chambers and the labyrinth sacred to the dread divinities. One day, a magical light revealed to her the beauty of a cave of stalactites and the presence of an intruder, Sparrowhawk, whose quest was so powerfully narrated in A Wizard of Earthsea. The rest of the story tells how Arha became Tenar once more, how – like Iphigenia – she escaped the divinities of death and destruction, and became truly human by aiding Sparrowhawk as well as herself to escape from the bleak desert land of Atuan. Somber, but never quite reaching the depths of tragedy, it is the story of the transformations that link life and death, and it bridges the chasm that separates the simulated reincarnation of Arha from the spiritual resurrection of Tenar. Some of the characters, like the High Priestesses Kossil and Thar, are monolithic in concept; and some, like Manan the eunuch and the novice “called Penthe,” are touched with human traits. But Arha, or Tenar, who first learns to accommodate herself to death, darkness, and silence is always at the center of the book; and what began as a monodrama becomes — with the introduction of Sparrowhawk — a duet of personalities. And Atuan, like Earthsea, is located in the mind of its maker, but was created out of the very stuff of mythology and reflects universal patterns that were once embodied in Stonehenge and in the Cretan labyrinth. PAUL HEINS

From the October 1971 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  The Farthest Shore [1973 National Book Award winner]
223 pp.     Atheneum

Illustrated by Gail Garraty. In the classic tradition of Lord Dunsany’s At the Edge of the World and Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the author has rounded out Sparrowhawk’s part in the trilogy begun with The Wizard of Earthsea (Parnassus) and continued in The Tombs of Atuan. The story deals with a schism opened between the worlds of being and of nonbeing, between dreams and reality, between life and death. Five years after Sparrowhawk becomes Archmage and the Master of Roke, Arren — the 17-year-old prince of Enlad — comes to Roke bearing ill news of wizardry gone awry, and the old ways of the Islands of Earthsea somehow tainted. Together they set out for the ends of the earth to track down and set right the force for destruction careening through their world. Their search leads them to a city of ill-luck, a slave ship, a Madman from the silk wombs of Lorbanery, the rafts of the Children of the Open Sea, and finally to the dark land of the dead. As in The Wizard of Earthsea, the evil they seek springs from an act committed in a moment of rash folly in Sparrowhawk’s past. The evil is conquered, the dead are laid to rest, and the prophecy naming the King of All the Isles fulfilled: “‘He shall inherit my throne who has crossed the dark land living and come to the far shores of the day.’” As always, there can be no quarrel with the world the author creates: She walks the paths of fantasy much as Sparrowhawk traverses the Dark Land — in full awareness and with a certain awe of the power that is hers. But in this book the scope of what is being dealt with is greater than what either the story or the characters can handle. The characters themselves are somehow flat. The author is a myth-maker, and as such her territory rightly spans life, death, philosophy, history, and religion. But because she is such a consummate myth-maker, the vehicle she chooses to carry her creation must be exceptionally strong. This book is not such a vehicle. Yet, the language is evocative, the world create absolute, and the “dragons on the wind of the morning” will burn in the imagination. SHERYL B. ANDREWS

From the December 1972 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea
226 pp.     Atheneum/Karl     2/90

Surely many devoted readers of the Earthsea trilogy have felt that the only major defect in that remarkable work was the lack of any account of the later lives of Ged, the archmage of Earthsea, and Tenar, the heroine of The Tombs of Atuan (Atheneum). Eighteen years after the publication of The Farthest Shore (Atheneum), Ursula Le Guin has flawlessly and seamlessly taken up her story where she left off. The tale concerns the return of Ged from his final encounter in The Farthest Shore, stripped of his powers as a mage, and the attempts of Tenar to save Therru, a child abused both sexually and physically. Ged, deeply humiliated, retreats into the hills of Gont to work as a goatherd while Tenar struggles to protect herself and Therru from a looming, nameless evil. Ged, using only his natural, human skills, saves them from an assault, and he and Tenar movingly express their long-delayed love. The old, dying wizard Ogion early in the book predicted an incomprehensible future for the pitiful Therru, and it is she who now summons the dragon Kalessin to destroy their enemies when Ged and Tenar cannot repulse a second attack. Therru has come into her powers as Tehanu, a dragon in human form. The theme of the difference in the power of men and women is very subtly expressed. Ged, a wizard of hard-earned wisdom, cannot help feeling less of a man without his power. Ged calls Tenar “life-giving,” and Ogion, dying, says, “Never one thing, for you,” and she answers, “No…But I am here.” Indeed, that seems to be her strength, she endures and does what she must. And Tenar and Ged, the guardians of the child Tehanu, settle down to work and quiet love in Ogion’s old house with “the small window that looked west.” A beautiful expression of mature love; a thoughtful, brilliant achievement. ANN A. FLOWERS

From the May/June 1990 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Gifts
274 pp.     Harcourt    9/04     ISBN 0-15-205123-6 17.00 g
(Middle School, High School)

The title is ironic. “Gifts” in this carefully imagined world are destructive powers, nurtured as defense against neighboring domains: “Feuds and bonds among the Upland lineages went back before memory, before history, before reason.” Orrec’s father Canoc is eager for his son’s gift to mature — their lineage’s gift is “unmaking” — but Orrec dreads the power to destroy by dint of “eye, hand, word, will.” When he seems to have done so unintentionally, the boy is horrified, fearing to wreak still more irreparable harm. Canoc seals his eyes, so that Orrec is effectively blind during the year his beloved, Lowland-born mother Melle is dying of a wasting disease inflicted by treacherous neighbor Ogge (his lineage’s gift); nor does he see his dear friend Gry becoming a lovely young woman. Gry, meanwhile, rejects her own gift of calling animal prey to their deaths. It’s Gry who wonders whether gifts might be mutable into benign talents and, building on Orrec’s true gift for poetry, also lures him beyond his bitter grief for Melle. The philosophical underpinnings here lie near the surface, yet without didacticism: Gry and Orrec are unique, thoughtful young rebels whose struggles have no easy or predictable outcome, while Le Guin’s own gifts illuminate every description. Indeed, she is rather like the storyteller, Melle, who “talked like a little stream running, clearly and merrily, with the Lowland softness and fluency.” JOANNA RUDGE LONG

From the September/October 2004 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Voices
341 pp.     Harcourt     9/06     ISBN 0-15-205678-5 $17.00 g
(High School)

Once years of oppression foment a craving for revenge, how can peace be achieved? What Le Guin prescribes results in an unrealistically hopeful outcome here, but its unfolding is thought-provokingly nuanced and complex. Memer is a child of rape, her unknown father one of the desert Alds who seized the city of Ansul eighteen years before. The Alds are fiercely monotheistic, priest-ridden, illiterate; book-destroyers who punish the very act of reading. Memer, however, has secretly studied with the Waylord, a wise man crippled by Ald torture, who still preserves Ansul’s books and gentle, polytheistic customs. The arrival of Orrec and Gry (who appeared in Gifts, rev. 9/04) precipitates a perilous chain of events. Orrec has become a “Maker”: poet, seeker of texts, “relighting the light of the word.” His inspired telling of traditional tales stirs the city dwellers from their apathy and “ ignorance” to rebellion. After an intricate series of military and diplomatic moves and countermoves, forgiveness prevails, with the Waylord its primary voice; there’s a salutary regime change. Memer — young, idealistic, distressed by women’s inferior status — relinquishes her bitterness reluctantly, yet it is she who will be the new “Reader” and lead the reclamation of knowledge. An artfully written political fable with compelling resonance. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

From the September/October 2006 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Powers
502 pp.     Harcourt     9/07     ISBN 978-0-15-205770-1 $17.00 g
(Middle School, High School)

Le Guin returns to “the Western Shore” to explore issues of liberty, loyalty, and self-realization from yet another point of view. In Gifts (rev. 9/04), Orrec told how he and Gry renounced their inherited destructive powers; in Voices (rev. 9/06), Orrec’s true gift, eloquence, propelled a desperately needed revolution. Now Gavir records his path from educated but unquestioning slave in one of the central city-states to sanctuary in Orrec and Gry’s northern home, where he also finds Memer, narrator of Voices. Along the way, Gav at first accepts the status quo in each of several societies before tragedy reveals their profound faults — the ruthless power of even benign-seeming masters, rigorous conformity, the denigration of women. Eventually he comes to value the healing power of true knowledge and the power of story. Le Guin’s own storytelling and analytical prowess continue to enchant readers: while Gav’s arduous adventures lead him to his true self, she explores a rich complexity of hypothetical cultures that elicit new insights into our own. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

From the September/October 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Catwings; illus. by S. D. Schindler.
40 pp.     Orchard/Jackson/Watts     1988
ISBN 0-531-05759-0     $10.95
Library edition ISBN 0-531-08359-4      g

The lovely, gentle fantasy tells of four kittens, Harriet, James, Thelma, and Roger, who are born with wing, much to their mother's surprise. Their life in an alley in a garbage dumpster is insecure and hazardous; in fact, more than once only their wings save them from certain death. Their mother, Mrs. Jane Tabby, sensibly sends them flying far away where they can be safer. After a long and wearisome flight, they finally arrive in the countryside and learn to fish and hunt for their food. But the owl objects, seriously injuring James, and their lives become more precarious than ever. But then Harriet finds some astonished children who offer her dinner. Thelma comments that Mother said, "'If you found the right kind of Hands, you'd never have to hunt again. But if you found the wrong kind, it would be worse than dogs.'" After carefully observing and testing the children, the four kittens contentedly settle down with them. "'Oh, James,' Harriet whispered, 'their hands are kind.'" The small, fine illustrations show the delightfully furry and winged cats to perfection. Every cat lover will wish for one of his or her own. ANN A. FLOWERS

From the November/December 1988 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Ursula K. Le Guin  Tom Mouse; illus. by Julie Downing
40 pp.      Roaring Brook      3/02
ISBN 0-7613-1599-3 15.95
Library edition ISBN 0-7613-2663-4 22.90

Tom is a mouse with wanderlust, eager to explore the world. With only some trepidation, Tom bids his family goodbye and boards a train, announcing to himself as he gazes out the window, “I’m free!...I’m a world traveler!” Although Tom is an adventurer and a thinker, he is also a circumspect mouse of no words. Le Guin wisely refrains from having Tom engage in conversation even with the old woman who becomes his traveling companion. Lonely herself as she circles the globe on business, she has lots to say to Tom, whom she discovers in Roomette Nine. Unafraid of mice, she surprises Tom as she willingly shares her food, delights in watching him dance, and offers to literally pocket him on her trips around the world. Illustrator Julie Downing gives us this tale from the perspective of Tom, from his lowly vantage point huddled on the floor of the train closet or caught in the rush of human feet. Realistically rendered, Tom is a wonderfully believable and alive mouse. And while Downing’s illustrations have an old-fashioned, dowdy feel, she reverses stereotypical images with her thoroughly modern casting: the old woman is black while the porter is white, and Downing follows Le Guin’s lead by dressing this already-unconventional businesswoman in casual, comfortable clothing rather than a staid suit. Told in four brief chapters, this tale of comradeship between two otherwise lonely globetrotters has an inviting freshness in its quiet telling. SUSAN P. BLOOM

From the May/June 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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