Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

One of my reading goals for this year is to keep up with the Sword & Laser book club picks, in the hopes that I can find fantastic new fantasy and sci fi authors, and read more diverse picks from the genre.  The February book pick was A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin.

This book (the first of a quartet) tells the story of Ged, a young boy who grows up to learn he has magical abilities.  His talent is identified by his aunt, who teaches his simple magics, until he is taken on as apprentice to a stronger magician on his home island of Gont.  Eventually he decides to leave his home and attend a wizarding school on the island of Roke.  He shows great aptitude with magical abilities, and is quick to learn.  He makes both friends and enemies, which shape his destiny.  One he has completed his time at school he ventures out into the world to act as a wizard.  He faces dragons and demons as he learns about his own powers during his adventures and travels through the archipelago of Earthsea.

I have to say I actually really enjoyed reading this book, though it took me a little while to get used to the writing style.  The prose is absolutely lovely to read, but it has a very different feel from most of the stories I have been reading lately.  The tale of Ged almost feels a bit like The Odyssey – a long string of events being told by a narrator.  We aren’t told what Ged is thinking or feeling during the course of the story, we are just allowed to view his actions.  The writing gives the reader enough clues to project their emotional experiences onto Ged, without having to sit through pages of teen angst and drama.  I found that I was able to understand Ged and his actions without needing every nuance of his behavior or personality explained to me in detail.

I ponder if I would have appreciated reading this story more as a child – it has a sense of childlike wonder about it, and at times the writing almost feels like something you would read to a child at bedtime.  Another part of me wonders if I would have really appreciated it at a younger age – would I have had the experienced to connect with Ged?  Or would I have thought his story to be really boring?  I suppose it doesn’t really matter at this point – I read it and I enjoyed it, which is the more important thing.  I don’t know if I am going to jump into the sequels right away, as I have a stack of half-finished books I sort of want to power through before starting another, but I do intend to read them at some point in the future.  I find the story to be quite refreshing – it deals with serious topics that are covered in many fantasy books, but in a subtle way that allows the reader to explore their own thoughts and feelings about issues like friendship, honor, and death.

Overall I have to say I highly recommend this book.  I don’t know if I would call it one of my favorite fantasy novels – I tend to prefer the really heavy books with detailed magic systems – but I do think it is an important foundation in the genre.  I think the prose is beautiful and well worth reading, and I think the content is appropriate for a wide audience.  I expect some people will find it too simplistic, but there is an elegance to that simplicity that I can really appreciate.  It is about as different as can be from the last book I read (Martin’s A Dance with Dragons) but I really appreciate the contrast.  A lovely book, definitely worth the read.

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