A Wizard of Earthsea

Cover of A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. Cover of a falcon stooping at the viewer by Dominic Harman.
Art by Dominic Harman. Click to read an excerpt!

Title: A Wizard of Earthsea

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin

Nutshell: Even as a lad, Duny, who would become the great wizard Ged, was powerful. His wizardry protected his village of farmers from the raiding army of the Kargs, though he was nearly dead by the end of it. Ogion, the silent mage, came then and took him as apprentice, but Duny’s heart yearned for quick power, for admiration and fame. In Ogion’s quiet abode, alone in the mountains, was none of that. So Ogion sent him to Roke, to the great school of wizards, and there Duny began indeed to win fame and power. Yet the desire for power, untempered by wisdom, can be a danger, and so it was with Duny. He allowed his power to be governed by his black temper, and woke something which had no name, something over which there could be no mastery.

Readalikes: Patricia McKillip’s books, especially Od Magic and The Riddle-Master of Hed. Diana Wynne Jone’s The Islands of Chaldea, The Name of the Wind, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are also very similar, rooted in the same traditions.

Nutshell: The themes of this book are very familiar to today’s reader of fantasy. The young, foolish wizard, the unusual geography of Earthsea, the relationships, even the tone that recalls the epic poems of ancient days are all well-worn tropes. What makes Earthsea unique in this is that it was the first. Ms. LeGuin wrote this book in 1967, when Fantasy was still a void left by the sucess of The Lord of the Rings.

The other thing that makes Earthsea unique is that it still reads well. A lot of books written in the early days of Fantasy (I’m sure an older reader than me is cringing at this statement) now feel very dated, clunky, and difficult to read. Earthsea does not. It feels like a callback to the ancient oral tradition, but in a very readable. 

I’ve said ancient oral tradition twice now, perhaps it bears explaining. The tone of the book is very much as if someone is saying, “Now I will tell you a story about one of the great heroes, who you have heard very much about, and maybe you have already heard this story, but it’s very important, so listen up.” You feel almost as though you are someone from one of the islands, sitting beside a hearth, listening to a chanter reciting. You start to want a loaf of crusty bread, maybe a piece of roast fish.

I’m not exaggerating. I felt very immersed in this book. It was a wonderful feeling, despite the simplicity and hardship of the lives of the characters. 

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