I finished A Wizard of Earthsea in one night. Part of this is because of its length–less than 300 pages. The language and concepts are easy to digest in one sitting, too, since the book was written as a Young Adult novel. But the main reason I read it so quickly is because it kept me engaged from beginning to end.
Maybe this was because of the world, every bit as forbidding and inhospitable as that of Dune’s, but never dreary or cynical. It was a world with energy and color, where I was eager to see the next culture, to learn the next detail of worldbuilding and the next hint at what had caused the cataclysm that created Earthsea as we find it.
Ged, the main character, is a lesson to aspiring writers on how to balance a powerful character. From almost the beginning of the novel, he is able to perform incredible feats of magic–and indeed, because of the somewhat ephemeral nature of the magic in Earthsea, we’re never quite sure what he can or can’t do, outside of what the main plot demands. But although he’s magically gifted, clever, and compassionate, he never feels too powerful, too competent, or too perfect. Ged is deeply flawed, and has a beautiful arc throughout the novel. He feels real, at every step on his journey.
Ursula K. Le Guin made reading A Wizard of Earthsea effortless. I rarely had to reread a sentence to decipher what it meant. That doesn’t mean that her writing is mindless; she puts a lot of detail–whether it be character, setting, or plot–in remarkably few words. But unlike the dense, breathless content that often comes from such rich writing, Earthsea is elegant, enchanting. Similar to J. K. Rowling at her best, Le Guin’s Earthsea feels as though each word on each page is imbued with magic.
This isn’t to say that the novel is perfect. The main plot is built increasingly as a mystery as it goes on, but the clues don’t lead the reader to the answer in a way that’s satisfying. The answer makes sense, and feels right, but I never had the “Ah-ha!” that’s so important to mystery plots. In addition, because the narration is distant and storybook throughout, emotional impact in some important moments are dulled. Lastly, it adheres to some cliches that draw a wince today, although some of these are likely only chiches today because she set the trend so many years ago.
Overall, however, A Wizard of Earthsea feels timeless rather than outdated. If you enjoy Fantasy, you’ll love it. And if it’s on your to-read list, as it was on mine for so long, I urge you to move it to the front. You won’t regret it.
I might be wrong, but I can’t help but think that A Wizard of Earthsea was an influence on Patrick Rothfuss. From the main character being arrogant and hotheaded, the magic-school setting, and the True Name elements in both magic systems, Rothfuss feels like a descendant of Le Guin’s writing as much as Jordan seems to be of Herbert.