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.