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?