Have you ever read a book that was so dazzling that you fear no other book will equal it? I’ve just finished reading Ursula Le Guin’s collection of fantasy books – The Earthsea Quartet – and I am in awe at what a stunning writer she is.
I didn’t find out that these were supposed to be children’s books until I finished the first book. However, screw what the publishing industry says. Certain books are ageless – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, Divergent and Earthsea may all be examples of books targeted at the child/YA market, but a good story deserves to be read by everyone.
In a nutshell
The Earthsea Quartet is, as you’d expect, made up of four books:
A Wizard of Earthsea (1968): we follow the main character, a goat herder called Duny, as he discovers his powers and becomes a powerful wizard.
The Tombs of Atuan (1972): focuses on a girl, taken from her home and forced to serve as a priestess (Atuan) in a foreboding temple in the middle of nowhere.
The Farthest Shore (1973): follows a young prince (Arren) as he travels with the Archmage of Earthsea to discover the force behind great trouble in the world.
Tehanu (1990): is told from the perspective of a woman and girl who struggle to survive in a world dominated by men who are out to destroy them.
Okay, these descriptions don’t do the books justice, but I lost myself in reading almost 700 pages of awesome and don’t want to spoil any of the books for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.
I’m studying mindfulness at the moment – which is all about awareness and allowing yourself to experience emotions, thoughts and experiences as they come along (rather than judging and analysing them).
For someone like me, who loves to analyse, interpret and organise, mindfulness is a good way to stop and pay attention to what’s happening, rather than exist in a haze of goals, self-criticism, past mistakes and future worries.
I didn’t expect to find a lesson in awareness in a fantasy book series. But, Usula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet is steeped in in. Being vs doing is the main theme of the book. When you perform an action, you never know what consequences will follow on from it.
It’s divisive. I’ve seen reader reviews that bemoan the lack of blood and guts in the books, but I like it and it makes sense.
Le Guin also looks at themes like, the cost of freedom, the evil people can bring into the world and self-sacrifice.
I love the Hunger Games books, I adore Harry Potter, and yes, I even read Twilight (erm, it was research okay?) but the Earthsea books are on a different level. The only other author (who I’ve read) that writes with the same power as Ursula Le Guin does here is Tolkien.
I’ve read some reader reviews that criticise the books for having slow plot lines – that the characters spend too long not doing much of anything. I’d understand this argument if the character was being indecisive for two chapters, but they aren’t. Each chapter moves the character’s journey forwards, and each sentence adds something to the story.
The big problem for me with The Left Hand of Darkness was not feeling any connection to the characters until the last few chapters. It’s different with these four Earthsea books, the characters are all rooted in a history and a world that comes across strongly on the page. It didn’t take long for me to feel connected to the characters and feel invested in their journey.
You know the writer has done a stellar job at world building when you find yourself staring at the map and wondering how many other stories are out there. When the story you’re reading only deals with a small corner of that world there’s unlimited potential for your imagination to work with.
The more I read about Ursula Le Guin, the more I love her. To find out more about her, read:
- this interview from 2004: Chronicles of Earthsea – in which we find out that she got hooked on Dr Who (Tom Baker no less), watched Star Trek until Voyager ruined it (what!? No! ), and that she was less than impressed with Harry Potter (ouch!).
- her views on the publishing industry are interesting. She says that when the Lord of the Rings books were published, and later, the Earthsea books, publishers exerted less control over the creative process. She talks about now, when “mass-produced fantasy” has to have a series hero and a certain structure, whereas in the 50s-70s authors had a greater freedom to create. Of course, the problem with publishing is that it’s a business, and when it finds a formula for success, it sticks to it. It’s less about the writing and more about the money.