So I just finished A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin. This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while that I finally borrowed from someone last week. I’m glad I read it; it’s well-done; but, well, it’s not all I was led to believe it would be.
As a work of mythopoeia, it is extremely well executed. The archipelago-rather-than-giant-continent aspect is well done and interesting. I really like how she does magic with Words, which represent Forms; very Aristotelian. This was probably my favorite part of the book. Also, there were never really any parts where I said, “wait, whaaa…?” and immersion was broken. All of these are good.
As a story, it’s interesting, but not inspired. The twist at the end – that the name of Ged’s shadow is “Ged”, and they are really the same – was somewhat predictable. After all, it couldn’t just be something random – it had to be something that appeared earlier in the story, or it doesn’t feel real (it’s like Chekhov’s gun rule, but reversed – you have to show the gun in act one before you can have it go off in act three), and having it named “Ged” makes more sense than any other possibility. It does have some interesting philosophical implications about life and death and accepting mortality. But other than that the story was basically “let’s wander around Earthsea and see as many islands as we can in a string of vaguely connected adventuers”, each of which was interesting but not extremely so.
The biggest problem, I think, is that Ged isn’t that interesting a character; he’s your standard intelligent, proud, teenager who is going on a quest to learn about himself and the nature of the world. I felt I could predict exactly what he could do in every situation he was in. Of course he would decide to go to Roke rather than remain with Ogion, of course he would accept Jasper’s challenge and bad things would come of it, of course he would almost be seduced by lady on Osskil but not be (and the fact that that Lady was the same as the little girl was predictable too), etc etc… being able to predict to a certain extent a character will do is necessary, of course, otherwise he’s just acting randomly and isn’t believable as a person. But if he always does what you expect he and any other intelligent, proud teenager would do in his situation then he becomes too generic. He becomes just a vehicle for exploring the physics and metaphysics of the world of Earthsea. I’m not opposed to that, per se, but it makes for what is only a good story, not a great story.
Finally, the prose is competent, but not inspired the way, say, Gene Wolfe’s is, and there were very few parts where I stopped and said “that’s a really cool of describing that”. LeGuin isn’t really a wizard with words.
Of course, in saying that A Wizard of Earthsea is only decent, not great, fantasy, I’m ignoring the fact that it came out in 1968. I think it’s comparable in quality with something like Sabriel, but Sabriel was written in the 90’s, nearly thirty years later. Clearly Garth Nix owes a lot to LeGuin’s work. And perhaps part of the reason I wasn’t hugely impressed with the book was that so much more recent fantasy was directly inspired by it – I could understand people who read the Lord of the Rings after reading more recent works of high fantasy having the same reaction. Not seeing how trailblazing these books were because we’re already at the end of the trail, and all that.