And then I finished the Earthsea series and I was simultaneously overjoyed and despondent.
Spoilers for the entire series.
This is a great and wonderful novel, full of death and life and love and loss and powerful changes and the steadiness of hope. It’s a spectacular way of bringing all the threads of the past five books of Earthsea together, and addressing most (perhaps all) of the issues raised in them: men’s and women’s magics, dragons and humanity, the necessity and fearfulness of change.
The plot: a witch’s son has been having dreams about the place of death. The dead are able to call him and even touch him across the wall that separates that place from the living, and this is a fearful thing indeed. He goes to Roke for advice, from there is sent to Sparrowhawk as a man who has crossed the dead lands, and from there is sent on again to the new king, Lebannen, since that’s where Tehanu and Tenar are. Coming to Havnor, Alder finds himself in the most court intrigue Le Guin has ever shown: a princess has been sent from the Kargad Lands with the clear intention that she should wed Lebannen; Lebannen is all petulant about being forced into something, plus he finds it hard to accept her cultural differences. Then there’s the dragons who have come to ravage the inner lands of Earthsea – although not killing humans… and then they all – bar Sparrowhawk – end up on Roke, where the changes that were suggested in the world back in The Farthest Shore, and the ideas of death and shadows and Old Powers from the earliest books, all come together in a mighty crescendo.
It’s a captivating plot, and it’s one of the most plot-driven of the Earthsea stories, but the characters are absolutely still the essence of the book. I love that Sparrowhawk is an old man in this book. He has been in previous stories too, but I love how generally comfortable he is with his new station. He still mourns for wizardry but it’s an accustomed thing rather than a gaping wound. His happiness with Tenar is comfortable and comforting. Their adoption of Tehanu and their respect for her oddness is a lovely example of Family. Doing the hard things, and ensuring that your family does the hard but necessary things and supporting them in it… it’s strong and honest and inspiring. There may have been a tear at the very end, for Tehanu. And I love Tenar; she is an awesome example of old women doing what old women can do: say the truth, get things done, not care about perceptions – she’s the fictional example of Le Guin’s essay “The Space Crone.”
I was so excited to have Irian/Dragonfly back! To know that she has found her place in the world with the dragons is very satisfying. She’s another character who agrees to do the hard thing – come back and deal with the humans for a short time – even though she doesn’t especially want to. I like that aspect of her character. And her passion.
Seserakh, the Kargish princess, is the most intriguing of the new characters (Alder is vital for the plot, but he’s still just a man with an unfortunate manner of dreaming). I’m a little uncomfortable about the fact that she wears a red veil, and that going bare-faced is a really big deal – the women who made fun of her at home were “bare-faced whores” – because I can’t figure out whether this is a dig at Islam or not. Seserakh herself is a strong, vulnerable, determined and passionate character… but she does end up removing the veil to be accepted. So I don’t know whether to be disappointed by this aspect or not.
Basically everything about this novel (with exception above) is wonderful and I’m so sad that it’s the end of Earthsea.
The joy of being able to read a new (for me) Ursula le Guin is hard to describe. It’s like reading a new Tolkien…
Although this is a set of short stories (and maybe a novella?), it’s described as the fifth book of the Earthsea set. This is certainly appropriate; the first four stories give more context for Earthsea as a whole, and the last story – which I think I’d read before? – is definitely a bridge between Tehanu and The Other Wind. And I loved it.
“The Finder” deals with the setting up of the school for wizards on Roke, and while it’s a lovely and intriguing story it ultimately made me really sad. Because men and women set it up together, and then at some point (not in this story) it becomes just men.
(I think it’s really interesting, actually, that across all of these stories (except perhaps “On the High Marsh”) the difficulties of wizards-as-men and women-with-magic is pretty much central. And it hasn’t been, until now. Tehanu starts to touch on it, but it’s not yet central.)
Anyway, I love the context provided by “The Finder,” as a prequel to everything that goes on in the rest of the set.
“Darkrose and Diamond” really surprised me. It’s a conventional enough love story, at the start; girl and boy, boy’s family doesn’t approve, etc. It was the conclusion that surprised, because it’s so different from everything else that happens in the Earthsea stories. It gives, I think, a useful reminder that individuals don’t have to follow what seems to be the obvious or apparently best path before them.
“The Bones of the Earth” gives us Ogion, Sparrowhawk’s original master, in a story that somewhat matches Sparrowhawk’s own early story. I have a fierce love for this silent man: so strong, so fragile, so loving and generous. And that was from just a few pages in two books before this. Now that I know his own learning-to-be-a-wizard story, and what he did with his master to hold the earthquake on Gont… well. Also: that particular event, with its connection to the old powers: oh. my. goodness. Le Guin manages epic in just a few short paragraphs and totally blows me away. Such profundity.
“On the High Marsh” brings us closer to ‘now’ – it’s set during Sparrowhawk’s time as Archmage, and although he turns up he’s not the focus. This time it’s a man whose magic is awry, and the impact on him – I guess this is a bit like what might have happened to Sparrowhawk if he hadn’t had compassionate teachers early on. I liked here the focus on other people’s reactions to wizardry; the kindness of Gift, the fear of other townspeople. It’s a useful reminder that Earthsea isn’t just about wizards.
Finally, “Dragonfly.” It’s hard to talk about this story without spoiling it – even saying that there are strong and important connection to Tehanu is something of a spoiler. It’s very definitely set now; indeed, the ending makes it clear that it’s happening while the events of Tehanu are occurring. It forms a really great bookend with “The Finder,” I think, dealing with the issue of men and women and wizardry. And it forms a most excellent springboard from Tehanu – the changes that are beginning to occur in the world – to The Other Wind, which brings these to crisis.
Such, such joy in reading these stories.
This one I’ve had finished for a while. I am super happy with how the colours worked out and I just think it’s gorgeous.
This one… well. You can see that the two sides are wonky. Not sure where I went wrong on the right chest there. One front panel is longer than the other because I didn’t count stitches properly. But I still hope that it might get worn… I think it will be quite warm…
And this one. I love this one. It’s for a dear friend’s newborn, and I love the yarn and I love the collar and I’m really happy with how it turned out. Because of the buttons I finally went to buy buttons; I went to a huge op-shop near me and they had one bag of mismatched buttons. Now it is mine and I will never have to complain about not having buttons again.
Our special 2014 Galactic Suburbia Award episode! Listen to find out our winner and shortlist for our award to honour activism and/or communication that advances the feminist conversation in the field of speculative fiction. You can get us from iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.
Alisa: Haven S5, Tempest’s Reading Challenge
Alex: Tehanu, Tales of Earthsea, and The Other Wind, Ursula le Guin; Jupiter Ascending; Waistcoats and Weaponry, Gail Carriger.
Tansy: D’Artanyan i tri Mushketyora (1979); New Avengers: Breakout prose novel by Alisa Kwitney; New Avengers: Breakout, by Brian Michael Bendis; Curb Stomp #1 – Ryan Ferrier (writer), Devaki Neogi (artist); Princess Leia #1 – Mark Waid (writer) Terry & Rachel Dodson (artists).
NEXT TIME: tune in for our Ursula Le Guin essay spoilerific. We will be covering: “The Space Crone” & “Is Gender Necessary? (Redux)” (both in Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, and Places) and “Science Fiction and Mrs Brown”(in The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction).
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It’s official. I like the Tenar-focussed books more than the Sparrowhawk-focussed ones. Don’t get me wrong – I adore Ged, and I love the quests and the excitement of A Wizard and The Farthest Shore. But there’s something wonderful about Tenar as a character, and there’s something wonderful about the more inwardly-focussed and (is this silly?) more relatable stories of Tenar’s life, that makes my heart ache with joy.
I can only imagine the wild joy that Tehanu must have been greeted with when it was released in 1990, 17 years after The Farthest Shore. Intriguingly, it begins before that story has finished – there is a problem with magic, and eventually Ged is delivered to Gont by the dragon Kalessin, but that’s not even the start of the story.
The story really begins with The Tombs of Atuan, and more even than The Farthest Shore continues A Wizard this is basically the second half of Tenar’s story. We skip the bits about being a wife and a mother… I don’t believe that’s because Le Guin sees those bits as unimportant, but perhaps because this bit – the being a widow stage – allows for more freedom of story, and even perhaps because this bit is told less often. There’s an ironic comment at some point about how once she got old, Tenar disappeared to men’s eyes. I adore how much this story is about being old, and getting on with life, and old =/ dead.
So Tenar is a widow, and she’s in charge of her dead husband’s farm because her son is off being a sailor, and she takes in a young girl who has been left for dead after being severely burnt. There’s a lot in the story about perceptions of physical appearance – whether through age or this sort of physical impairment. There’s also a lot about why men (humanity in general I suppose, but the major focus is on men) do what they do, and the child’s situation is emblematic of all of this. As is Tenar’s steadfast, generous, stubborn heart in caring for Therru as her own. Ged does turn up, eventually, but he doesn’t take Tenar on adventures. This time, he is drawn into her world, in an inversion of their first encounter. This time, it’s he that’s struggling with his identity and his purpose in life, and Tenar who takes him in hand.
There is adventure, of a sort – nasty men and even an encounter with the king – but they’re blips in an ordinary life, a brush with celebrity. The very end of the story is a different matter (which: !!!), but still the resolution is in keeping with Tenar’s desire for an ordinary life. There’s more interest in goats, and spinning; in peach trees; in small-town relationships – especially between women – and understanding changed-but-the-same friends. I have to say that in writing in this I experienced a twinge of concern, that perhaps I’m not selling this to – yes, you guessed it – male readers. And then I realised how I was feeling and nearly despaired. Of course I think men should read this, in the sense that I think everyone should because it’s saying such deep things about life and because it’s written so gorgeously. If men – and indeed women – choose not to read this because they think they only enjoy adventures, well, their loss.
Because Le Guin is saying a great deal about ‘real life’ in this book. In her discussion about where power lies, and what power is; about the relationship between men and women in terms of power and trust; about motherhood and what it means; about the nature of knowledge; and perhaps even a suggestion of how to live ‘the good life’.These themes are another way in which the continuity between this and The Tombs is evident. I don’t particularly like some of what she has to say about men’s and women’s power, and I’m not sure that I’m even meant to agree with or like it, but it’s still intriguing.
I adore this book.
Comment on revelation about Ged: SPOILER!!
I am deeply fascinated and intrigued by Le Guin’s revelation that wizards are essentially sexless – neutered in some way by magic. Hmmm, the terminology here may get me in trouble. At any rate, he’s basically not experienced adolescence. I can only imagine that she was asked whether Tenar and Ged had had sex in the boat en route to Havnor, and this is her explanation of why not! It’s a very cunning way of helping to partly explain the lack of women on Roke – that is, no wives or girlfriends – as well as reassuring the readers about wizards not using their powers for manipulation.
It’s our birthday! (We’re on iTunes or at Galactic Suburbia.)
What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Cherry Crow Children by Deborah Kalin, Perth Writers Festival – Elizabeth Gilbert
Alex: up to date with Saga (in trade); The Chimes, Anna Smaill; A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Ursula le Guin; Etiquette and Espionage, and Curtsies and Conspiracies, Gail Carriger.
Tansy: Spider-Gwen #1, Companion Piece, Fangirl Happy Hour #4 (Renay’s rant on female characters & agency)
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I received this book from the publisher.
There are spoilers ahead for the first two books of this series, Etiquette and Espionage and Curtsies and Conspiracies. I’m also going to talk about the very end of this book, but I’ll let you know when that’s about to happen.
I continue to be impressed by the fact that the problem set up in the first book, about the mysterious crystalline valve, has continued to be a significant plot point across the three books of the series so far. Aside from a simple continuity of characters, this makes the series feel more cohesive than it otherwise might and it’s something I especially did not expect from an adventures-at-school book. Sorry for doubting you, Carriger. It does of course continue to develop, until here we start to see how the valve might actually be used nefariously. The other intriguing, if fleeting, piece of continuity is Professor Braithwope’s mental instability, caused either by the snapping of his vampiric tether or his experience in the aether. It would have been nice to see a bit more resolution of this, but I’m glad he hasn’t simply been abandoned.
The focus of the series, of course, is the growing friendship of the girls – Sophronia and Dimity especially, but Agatha and Sidheag as well. (Sophronia is the central protagonist throughout; Dimity got a starring role in C&C; Sidheag has her turn in this book… which surely means that the fourth book will finally give us some Agatha love? She’s absolutely the most mysterious at this point – apparently from great wealth, there’s no hint about why she’s at Miss Geraldine’s, and given her apparently mouse-like character how could she ever survive as an intelligencer? So that’s something to hope for.) Sophronia and Dimity continue to be inseparable; I was concerned that Dimity was just going to be the slightly dopey sidekick, but again I should have trusted Carriger; she’s definitely got a mind of her own, and although she doesn’t try that hard to stop Sophronia being mad, she doesn’t just go along blindly. I was glad to see more of Sidheag, while feeling sorry for the reason behind it. Solid female friendships are a lovely lovely thing.
One of my disappointments with this book is the same as in Curtsies and Conspiracies: the boys. There’s a lot of anguishing over Lord Mersey and Soap. Felix is a useful person to know but he’s a right pain in the butt and I got pretty sick of him, it must be said; his overly familiar and pushy attitude towards Sophronia was irritating and bordering on offensive. I like Soap. I can appreciate the we’re-just-friends narrative, as well as everyone rolling their eyes at the idea that Sophronia is so naive. I really appreciate that this is a cross-race and – perhaps even more pertinently – cross-class friendship/might-be romance. Felix vs Soap isn’t much fun, though, bordering on possessiveness sometimes. Sophronia doesn’t really put up with it, which is good, but it still bugged me.
But not as much as the ending… thus SPOILERS NOW. (So skip the next paragraph or just know that I did enjoy it and still look forward to the fourth book later this year.)
I knew that there was going to be some drama involving werewolves and Soap wanting to change from about the middle of the book. As soon as there were guns pulled at the end I got that sinking feeling and yup, then Soap got shot right while Lord Slaughter happened to be standing there. Oh what a surprise. At least it wasn’t in protecting Sophronia directly. I did like that Sophronia saved her friend, and was wonderfully gallant in standing up to Slaughter and demanding he try – and that she stood by her promise to be indentured to him (HOO BOY). But… there’s still something about this turn of events that makes me uncomfortable. I’m glad Soap was saved, and yes he wanted to be a werewolf, but this is not on his terms. I can’t express it much better than this: it just wasn’t quite right.
I did like it, I really want to find out where Sophronia goes now, and I REALLY want a book featuring Agatha. You can get this one from Fishpond.
This is another hugely enjoyable book from Carriger. Once again our girl Sophronia is thrown into difficulties at her alleged finishing school. This time she has a lot more to do with the supernatural element of her world, especially the vampires. Of course there’s a lot of discussion of dresses and fashion and hats and reticules; she must figure out how to carry a knife without it being obvious, she must learn to bat her eyelids effectively, and how best to carry the implements required of a young lady in her position. I’m still surprised by how enjoyable I find yet another school focused book.
Most of this book is spent on the dirigible of Miss Geraldine’s finishing school. Some time is spent in classes, learning about domestic economy, poisoning, fainting and how to properly address vampires. But for Sophronia, much of her time is spent on the outside of the dirigible – climbing – as well as with the sooties down below and the dressing-as-a-boy Vieve. Interestingly the plot follows on from Etiquette and Espionage, in that the MacGuffin here is the same. Of course this time it’s not so much about finding the prototype as it is about figuring out what it can do, how it will do it, and who will control it. There’s a surprising amount of politics for a book that seems at least on the outside as being solely can send with fashion. I guess that’s kind of the point; that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive and anyone who is thinks they are is likely to underestimates graduates of Miss Geraldine’s finishing school.
One of the big differences in this book compared to the original is that there’s a lot more boys. I’m not really sure what I think about this; on the one hand it’s obviously an important skill for girls like Sophronia and Dimity to learn – that is, how to deal with difficult yet handsome young man. And of course reappearing in this book is Soap, certainly one of my favorite characters although somewhat problematic given that he’s black and his nickname is Soap. On the other hand I really enjoyed the almost exclusively female cast of the first book; the fact that boys were not necessary for the book to proceed, the fact that the girls were perfectly capable of getting themselves into and out of scrapes generally without any male assistance (or hindrance) at all. While some of the ways that Sophronia dealt with her would-be suitors was entertaining, I did find myself enjoying the sections of the plot that solely involves the girls generally more enjoyable.
I continue to be fascinated by the development of this world that Carriger initially developed for the Alexia books. And of course I remain desperately keen to find out how this series will intersect with the earlier one. One of those intersections is quite obvious but I have no doubts that Carriger will provide some further surprises in the rest of the series.
For a book written for children – perhaps a young adult audience – this sure is a bleak book. It’s also a deeply philosophical book, as well as having a great deal of adventure and learning about life. It’s the most Tao book of Le Guin’s Earthsea series. It’s an odd book to come after The Tombs of Atuan, as that was after A Wizard of Earthsea; the pace is so different. I think Wizard must come first but for these two the order is irrelevant. It’s also back to bring an almost exclusively male narrative.
I know young adult books are often bleak; we have a rash of dystopian novels to prove that. But in roughly 170 pages Le Guin explores the consequences of rushing off after life at the expense of losing life; of fearing death so much that you give up on life; and the sheer loss of hope, and what that might do to society. Somehow the fact that Le Guin does it so quickly makes it seem more bleak. Like the first book
this book is about one quest, one search for one man. Instead of taking an entire trilogy, with lots of disappointments and setbacks and newfound friends, Le Guin has Sparrowhawk, now with a new young friend, simply track that man down. Of course it’s not really a case of doing anything “simply”. There are set backs. The book does show us more of Earthsea and its environs, and we meet a variety of different people; but everything is designed to assist in the one quest. And as I said before, it is only 170 pages. Le Guin’s words are evocative and precise. There is glorious description, but it doesn’t go on forever. Characters are swiftly sketched. Swiftly, and brilliantly. The story is as driven towards its conclusion as Sparrowhawk is towards his.
We always knew that Sparrowhawk would turn out to be the archmage. We were told that in the first book. And here he is, Archmage for five years, now being confronted by something strange going on to the south and to the west of the Inner Lands. Unsurprisingly Sparrowhawk is feeling confined by the walls and the tasks and the requirements of being archmage. It’s not clear how long after the events of the previous books this is happening. And in some ways, as the book reminds us, it doesn’t really matter. Sparrowhawk has had a long and distinguished and occasionally difficult career as a sorcerer. Many of those deeds get recorded in the songs made about him at some point in the future. This is another one to add to his long list. Of course, he is not the only – and perhaps not even the main – protagonist of this book. He is joined by a young prince, perhaps just slightly older than Sparrowhawk himself was in A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s therefore a coming-of-age story for young Arren, as that book was for Sparrowhawk. Not that Sparrowhawk doesn’t have a lot to learn: about himself and about his world and about what must be done.
Life and honour and death and hope and love and fear. What more could an author hope to explore?
While there’s a similar feel in the language – sparse and intense – this is a very different book from A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s bound to just one place; it’s focussed on a girl. The struggle for identity is similar but Tenar/Arha has less agency than Ged, which is understandable given her very different situation. There’s very little magic.
I might love this more than A Wizard of Earthsea.
It’s so… peculiar. It’s simple enough to find parallel stories – mythic ones, modern ones – for Ged, since he is basically a young man finding his purpose and his way in the world. It’s a coming of age story, if not ‘simply’. For Arha though… the situation is different. It’s still a coming of age story; it is about Arha finding her purpose and place and understanding the world. But it’s focussed so tightly on the Place that it feels completely different. Is there a difference in a girl coming of age and a boy? Certainly in terms of myth there is, and Le Guin is, I think, interested in writing Myth in these stories. In fact she makes some quite obvious comments about mythology; we know, in A Wizard of Earthsea, that Ged goes on to become something great (how’s that for foreshadowing and reassurance?), and that there are stories about him. Arha is basically living a myth.
I’m fascinated by Arha. I love Le Guin’s exploration of the fact that she is a wilful young girl – and who wouldn’t be, being told that they are the First Priestess reborn, and basically untouchable by any of the people around her? When you are so set apart from those around you, it makes sense that you would become aloof and indifferent. And yet Arha is also vulnerable; she fears Kossil, the High Priestess of the Godking, but also relies on her. She is overcome by her fear of the dark, when first taken to the Undertomb, and then overcomes the fear in turn. I can imagine that, left to her own devices, she would have become quite formidable… within the restricted space she can access.
This is a claustrophobic novel. Where A Wizard introduces the reader to many parts of Earthsea, this one only really allows us to see one remote, nearly forgotten, temple complex. And yet the plot itself doesn’t feel that constrained, perhaps because – for most of it – Arha doesn’t notice it. It’s a testament to Le Guin that she makes such a small area so intensely powerful and important.
I had forgotten how much I love this book. In fact, perhaps I didn’t used to love it so much, and this is a reflection of greater maturity… I guess I read this in early high school, and I don’t think since. Onwards to more Le Guin!