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A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursela K. Le Guin

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It’s so disconcertingly rare for fantasy novels to present readers with anything more than a rehashed Tolkien homage, that when I come across something that does offer a fresh look at the genre it’s cause for celebration. It’s even better when the author has the skill to present the story in a way that is engaging and entertaining, and leaves you hungering for more once the novel is complete.

This is exactly how I felt when I first read “A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursela K. Le Guin several years ago. The book doesn’t go out of its way to satirize or stretch the bounds of fantasy, as some authors, such as Michael Swanwick, might do, but it does move away from the high fantasy of Tolkien and his imitators. (Granted, J. R. R. Tolkien was a master of his craft, and I hold his work in high regard, but I do believe that the fantasy genre suffers for those who can’t or won’t take it beyond his good vs. evil high fantasy dynamic.)

Set in Le Guin’s world of Earthsea, an archipelago situated in an endless ocean and populated by bronze-age humans and many older, darker entities, this book is the starting point for Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle.

“A Wizard of Earthsea” follows the early life of a talented, aspiring wizard named Ged, known to all but his closest friends as Sparrowhawk, whose rise to manhood and power is fraught with the perils of hubris and youthful arrogance. It is a coming of age tale in which a young, headstrong boy must come to grips with the consequences of his actions, and accept the fact that raw potential must be tempered with experience before true power can be realized. It’s a setting where magic is complex and dangerous, and safely harnessing its power requires years of dedicated study, a setting where the shadows of the characters’ past mistakes haunt them both figuratively and literally.

This book is an excellent read for adults and teens alike, as it provides both an entertaining story while exploring themes of coming of age, the folly of pride, the power of knowledge and language, and the impact of the choices we make. Along with other iconic works, “A Wizard of Earthsea” is a powerful and accessible starting point for any budding fantasy fan.

Of course, Le Guin’s work isn’t perfect. It is on the short side for a fantasy novel and is sparse on dialogue, which often leaves the reader with dense exposition, but it remains engaging throughout. It’s narration also tends to create distance between the reader and the characters, making them somewhat less sympathetic, but I believe this style enhances the book’s darker tone and the isolation inherent in the setting’s island dwelling culture.

“A Wizard of Earthsea” was first published by Le Guin in 1968 and awarded the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1979. Slated for a reprint to hardback on September 11, 2012, this book is a must buy for any discerning fantasy reader who doesn’t already own a copy.

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