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.