Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fantasy Novel Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

I had the pleasure of finishing this book today, and sought to share my thoughts here on the blog.  Having picked it up at the behest of many rave reviews and seeing it consistently ranked among the best fantasy novels, I picked it up and was not disappointed.  Although written for young adults and shorter than many of its counterparts in today's market (my copy had a modest 224 pages), it is a worthy read that older folks will find entertaining as well.

The book tells the tale of Ged, a budding mage living in the pastoral island of Gont.  Unlike most of the other children he found that he knew special words which could call animals to him; his aunt, recognizing this as the signs of magic, took him on as an apprentice.  Ged, who was a reckless youth who only saw the powers such talents could bring, was hungry to learn more with little thought to the consequences of its misuse.  When he uses his abilities to defend his village from foreign raiders and is picked up by a more experienced wizard named Ogion, this only bolsters his ego.  When his training ends with him and he's pointed to a magic school at the island of Roke, Ged quickly becomes a favored apprentice who takes to spells of all kinds with ease.

Ged starts out as more of an anti-hero, unlike many typical fantasy protagonists.  He hungers for power, and in spite of Ogion's warnings against delving into magic beyond his grasp, Ged does not take this lesson to heart.  This flaw proves fatal when at Roke he attempts to summon the spirits of the dead to prove a point to a hated rival at school that he's a truly skilled mage.  He is only partly successful, for he does summon a spirit, but in that line between the mortal and afterlife something...else, a nameless shadow from an unknown realm, crawls into the physical world and nearly kills Ged before the archmages of Roke banish it.

The shadow's attack has far-reaching consequences throughout the story.  Ged is left in a near-comatose state for weeks, and the shadow monster is loose in the world and will bring harm to others.  When he finally recovers, Ged finds that even his classmates have surpassed him in their studies, and when he leaves Roke at finds that the shadow is stalking him across land and sea.

The rest of the story has Ged sailing about the region of Earthsea, a chain of islands of diverse climates and peoples.  During his travels he outwits hungry dragons, escapes the clutches of an imprisoned entity beneath a warded stone, and even visits the forlorn villages at the tiny isles before world's end.  We learn more of Earthsea through his travels, although it does not approach the fastidious world-building common to other fantasy novels.  We hear brief mentions of things like the Western Reaches, "where dragons are as common as mice," or the militaristic kingdoms of the Kargs, but mostly in the context of casual conversations or mentions in regards to other matters.  This gives the sense of a deep and vibrant world without the story losing itself in pages of exposition.

Earthsea is in many ways a coming of age story, of a talented yet flawed young man who strives to undo the harm his arrogance has wrought.  The unconventional world and its focus on island travel and civilizations is an interesting touch fantasy novels need more of, and the magic system's focus on every object and being having a true name is neatly explored yet remains consistent throughout the story without losing its wondrous feeling.

A Wizard of Earthsea is not just a good book, it was a trendsetter for many things in the fantasy genre which were novel back in 1968.  It introduced the concept of a magic school three decades before Harry Potter.  It had a wizard protagonist when traditionally the hero was a noble swordsman. And in an era during the final years of the Civil Rights Movement, where it was assumed (if not mandated by certain publishers, notably the Comics Code Authority) that most characters were white-skinned, Le Guin chose to make Ged, as well as the majority of Earthsea's inhabitants, dark-skinned.  This final element is a literary example which is still very rare in the fantasy genre today (a trend I hope falls by the wayside in favor of better representation and more varied worlds).

Final Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars.  The story never once got boring for me, and I recommend it to anyone who's even a casual fan of fantasy novels.