Thursday, November 29, 2018

Tales from Earthsea

Ursula K. Le Guin
Completed 11/28/2018, Reviewed 11/28/2018
4 stars

The fifth book of the Earthsea Cycle is a collection of stories.  The theme through all the stories is the effects of magic on the wizards, witches, and townspeople affected.  It questions the use of power as well as the discrimination of women in their use of magic.  Most of the stories are great.  All have great prose, and all but one had good character development.  The one that didn’t just didn’t delve much into the emotions of the characters involved.  However, overall it’s an excellent collection of tales from before, during, and after the events of the previous four books.

“The Finder” is a novella of the founding of Roke, the center of magic in Earthsea.  It follows Otter, a boy with magical talents, who is first taken into slavery as a finder of precious minerals, escapes, and goes on a quest to find rare books of magic.  It is told like the first three novels, but is much more concise.  I liked the story and pacing a lot, but it doesn’t have much character development, even though it follows Otter through most of his life. 

“Darkrose and Diamond” is a short story about a boy with a talent for magic and music.  Named Diamond by his father Golden, he is in love with a witch’s daughter named Darkrose.  Golden recognizes Diamond’s talent for magic and arranges for him to be prentice to a wizard rather than go into the family business.  This, of course, means that Diamond has to leave Darkrose and live with the wizard, as well as give up his music.  Then he learns that wizards are celibate.  He has to make a choice.  Does he become a wizard and forgo his loves or return home and live a mundane life?  I found this short story delightful.  The characters are well-drawn and the plot moves along very well.  It left me feeling warm and satisfied. 

“The Bones of the Earth” is a sweet short story about a wizard and his prentice.  The story is told in a long flashback.  Dulse is an old wizard who takes on Silence as a prentice.  The thing about Silence is that he has already been to Roke, but left for some unknown reason.  Coming back to the present, Dulse must use Silence’s help in stopping an earthquake from devastating the town of Gont. 

“On the High Marsh” describes the visit of a wizard, Otak, after his long journey to a small village that is suffering from a cattle plague.  The wizard is a healer, healing the cows he can and reducing the suffering of those he can’t.  He stays at the house of a woman named Gift.  A sorcerer comes to town and challenges Otak’s right to be there.  The confrontation alarms the residents of the village and turns them against Otak.  Then Sparrowhawk comes to town.  Can he smooth everything out?  This was another lovely story with good characterization and an interesting plot. 

“Dragonfly” is about a girl with unknown powers who wants to go to Roke to learn who she is.  At the beginning of the story, she lives with her drunken father and takes care of all matters of the family farm.  Then a wizard comes to town.  He devises a plan to get her to Roke, but since women are not allowed at the school, it must be done by concealing her womanhood.  When she gets there, she divides the Council of Nine, leading to an ultimate confrontation of old versus new.  The story definitely has the feel that it is a prologue to the next and final book.  It is more intense than the rest of the stories in this book.  It is exciting with delicious prose and good characterization.

In the edition I read (e-book), there was an appendix with some details of the peoples, history, language, and other subjects of Earthsea.  Some of it was interesting; some a little dry.  Le Guin wrote it as she was writing the new stories, kind of a summary of everything she knew about Earthsea up to that point, according to her afterword. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I really felt a connection with all the main characters except Otter from the first book.  It was a little too much like a campfire tale, lacking the emotional depth of the other stories.  The prose throughout the stories is exquisite, as it is with almost all the Le Guin I’ve read so far.  I’ve come to really love her writing, even when I find the plot or character development lacking.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Halfway Human

Carolyn Ives Gilman
Completed 11/25/2018, Reviewed 11/25/2018
4 stars

This was a fascinating book.  It’s about a planet that has three sexes: male, female, and neuter.  The plot follows one neuter as it recounts its life story to humans from another planet.  While the book is basically about sexuality, it is more strongly about slavery and oppression and the what happens to the minds of slaves.  The book is a rough read, particularly because of the sexual abuse the main character endures, and also because of the slave mentality that the main character can’t seem to break out of.  I really enjoyed it, though, finding it a provocative tale that mirrors so much of society today in many different ways.

The story begins with Tedla, a neuter being known as bland, having been found on a planet light years from home, after a suicide attempt.  The locals have never seen a bland before and the doctor calls her daughter Val, a Xenologist to come and interview Tedla.  It takes a while for Val to gain Tedla’s confidence, but soon its story comes out.  Tedla is a fugitive from its home planet where it, like all blands, are slaves to the gendered people.  In fact, the blands are not considered humans at all.  This is because all beings on this planet are sexless until puberty and are only considered born once they develop sex organs.  Thus, blands are not considered born and are therefore not human.  Val tries to figure out why Tedla attempted suicide, but instead, she gets an amazing story of life growing up on a world that discriminates between gendered and genderless beings. 

Tedla’s story begins as a child growing up in a group home, as all children are.  It (and I use the pronoun it because that is the preferred pronoun according to Tedla) has some interactions with blands as they help raise the children.  That is how we begin to learn of the culture of the blands.  However, at about age twelve, they are given a test to determine if they are becoming gendered.  Tedla is horrified to find out it is a bland, and immediately the cruel treatment begins.  It then goes through a series of guardians, the nice word for owners, some of whom treat it well, some not.  Through a series of circumstances, Tedla ends up with an alien from another planet as guardian and stubbornly begins to learn the innate immorality of the treatment of blands.

As I mentioned earlier, the sexuality is the obvious issue being discussed, that being differently gendered makes one a non-human.  Tedla endures sexual abuse just for being a neuter, even though it is illegal to do so.  Basically, it begins its life as a bland as a sexual slave.  Eventually, Tedla gets out of that situation and becomes simply a slave, as all blands are.  This is really the crux of the book.  The blands live below the humans in what is called greyspace.  They come up to the human city via doorways that are in every dwelling.  They cook, clean, take care of the children, basically doing everything we think of slaves doing.  They are indoctrinated into believing they are less than human and need their guardians for all direction.  They are made to not believe that they are capable of independent thought or action.  Even when Val is interviewing Tedla, it believes that it can’t function without a guardian, despite all evidence to the contrary.  When the alien comes from another planet to study this race, his mere presence is enough to make the planet believe that he has come to overturn their society and free the blands. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s very powerful in its representation of the evils of slavery.  It’s a tough read, only because Tedla’s life story is so devastating.  There’s a great twist at the end as well that makes it all that much more deplorable.  But I highly recommend this book as one to read for its message as well as its excellent writing and story line. 

Friday, November 23, 2018


Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 11/19/2018, Reviewed 11/20/2018
4 stars

This is the fourth book in the Earthsea Cycle.  Like its predecessors, it has great prose but doesn’t have a lot of action.  Unlike them, it’s about our heroes living ordinary lives without their magic or power.  It was written nearly twenty years after the third book.  According to LeGuin’s afterword, it took her time and life experience to get this novel fleshed out.  This really shows in how the characters weave their ways through their lives and how they confront evil.  The emotions are very realistic and the characters very human. 

The book follows the main character of The Tombs of Atuan, now known as Goha or by her true name Tenar.  She is now a widow with two grown children living outside of Sparrowhawk’s home village.  She runs the family farm since her son, the inheritor of the property, is away at sea.  She has taken in a physically and emotionally abused little girl, Therru, who has been raped and badly burned.  She finds out that Ogien, her and Sparrowhawk’s mentor, is near death, so she goes with Therru to take care of him.  After a little while, Sparrowhawk appears, exhausted and now completely powerless from completing his mission from The Farthest Shore.  Tenar nurses him back to health.  But they have one final battle against evil, for which they must rely on outside help to get through.

Once again, there isn’t much of a plot.  A lot of the story revolves around Tenar’s life thus far, the finding and caring of Therru and their relationship.  It then evolves into Sparrowhawk’s depression and coming to grips with no longer being a mage.  Instead of plot, there is a lot of philosophizing on the nature and role of women in the Earthsea society, particularly in terms of their relationship to magic.  In the story, women are only witches, pale imitations of male wizards.  Tenar questions this, not understanding why women can’t be wizards.  It’s a very relevant reflection on male privilege. 

The book also has a lot to say about depression.  Sparrowhawk, once the Archmage, used up all his magic fighting the evil at the end of the last book.  He’s physically and emotionally exhausted, and in a state of deep depression.  It’s almost a PTSD-like state.  Therru is in a similar state, although she’s only a small girl.  She barely speaks, shies away from strangers, and doesn’t like to be touched.  The only one who gets through to her is Tenar, and even that is a tenuous relationship.  But when Sparrowhawk shows up, she takes to him quickly, sensing his brokenness, even though he is not in a state to handle the company himself. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  It was a quick easy read even though the subject matter is quite difficult.  Unlike the previous books, I find it is less a YA novel, dealing with more adult themes.  This perception comes from the fact that the book is told in third person from the perspective of Tenar rather than Therru.  Many reviewers were unhappy with the lack of magic and heroics, but I found it to be an excellent slice of life of ordinary people and was completely content with there only being a little heroic moment in the end. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018


Kelley Eskridge
Completed 11/17/2018, Reviewed 11/17/2018
4 stars

This was an extremely well written novel about a dystopian future with a world government and an experimental mind-altering technique.  It poses the question of how isolation from human contact for a number of years affects an otherwise normal, productive person.  It was nominated for several awards, including the Nebula and the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards.  It features a Latina main character, which is pretty rare in science fiction, who is also a lesbian.  Reading it was quite enjoyable, even though parts were quite grim.  While not a thriller, it kept me on the edge of my seat for most of the book.

Ren “Jackal” Sequra is a Hope, a sort of goodwill ambassador to the Earthgov.  She works for Ko, a major world corporation, as a project manager.  Two months before her induction ceremony, a terrible accident occurs, killing over four hundred people, including most of her closest friends.  Jackal is accidentally responsible for their deaths, but is accused of being a mass murderer and terrorist.  She takes a deal to plead guilty and is given a long prison term.  However, she is offered the opportunity to undergo an experimental process which would induce the sense that she spent eight years of solitary confinement in a matter of days, and then be set free.  If she takes the deal, what kind of person will she emerge as?

The book is really divided into three parts:  her time as a Hope, her indictment and confinement, and her attempt to rebuild her life afterwards.  Her time as a Hope is a long introduction that gets us to know Jackal and where she came from.  It’s very interesting, but the book really kicked into gear when she was put into solitary confinement.  It’s not exciting, as the term “kicked into gear” might imply, but it’s very intense, and I felt like I was in stuck in that small cell in her head with her.  The third part, rebuilding her life, is just as intense.  She’s hounded by her probation officer under threat of being arrested again for any one of many small transgressions.  Somehow, she carves out a new life, discovering a bar called “Solitaire” which is intended for “solos”, survivors of the mental incarceration she experienced.

Jackal is a terrific character.  Her experience growing up as a Hope and as a high-powered project manager gives her amazing skills that initially help her cope with the solitary confinement.  But eight years of being isolated can take its toll on anyone.  Still, she’s smart, brave, and clever.  She’s a lesbian, but it is treated matter-of-fact, well integrated into her character as a whole.  I liked her a lot and found myself empathizing with her quickly.  The other characters in the book are very vibrant as well, particularly Jackal’s mother, her probation officer, her girlfriend, and a few of the other solos.  No one was a cardboard or throwaway character. 

There’s an interesting social structure used in the book, known as a web.  It’s an eclectic group of friends who take aliases and are a support system for each other.  That’s where the name “Jackal” comes from.  Jackal’s girlfriend’s taken name is Snow and she comes from a different web.  The author doesn’t go into detail as to how one is formed or what its origins are, but it seems like an awfully good concept.  Jackal’s web is featured in the beginning of the book, but the concept doesn’t really appear again until the very end.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It was very nearly a five, though I didn’t have that as much of an emotional response as a five-star book should.  Still, it’s beautifully written, and I was greatly caught up in it.  The ending was very satisfying.  I would recommend this book to anyone who wants something a little more cerebral and emotional in their science fiction. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Farthest Shore

Ursula K. LeGuin
Completed 11/12/2018, Reviewed 11/12/2018
3 stars

This is the third book of the original Earthsea Trilogy.  It’s by far the toughest of the three books.  It spends a lot of time on the difficult journey of the two main characters and poses philosophical questions about life and death.  I had a much tougher time getting into the story and the characters than I did in the first two books.  I even had a tough time with the prose.  It felt like LeGuin was trying too hard to write an ultimate conclusion to the trilogy. 

Taking place quite a while after “The Tombs of Atuan”, magic and true names seem to be disappearing from Earthsea.  Mages in different parts of the archipelago are being ostracized or going insane from their inability to use magic or invoke true names.  Sparrowhawk, now an Archmage, goes on a quest to find the source of the evil and put a stop to it.  He takes along Arren, a young prince, as his companion, for Sparrowhawk has foreseen that it is necessary to bring him along.  Their quest takes them on a journey to the farthest shore at the end of the world where they must confront the ultimate evil.

The book is told from Arren’s point of view.  Like the main characters of the previous two books, Arren is young.  He is filled with angst, not normal teen angst, but an existential angst that throws into question his decision to follow Sparrowhawk.  He questions the use and non-use of magic in small things like conjuring of winds to push their boat along all the way up to the granting of eternal life.  He despairs in the middle of the journey, questioning Sparrowhawk’s sanity, but then is filled with hope and loyalty as he comes to his senses. 

Sparrowhawk is now an old man.  He’s no longer the brash, young apprentice as in the first book, nor the well-humored mentor of the second book.  Here, he’s quiet and introspective, not saying much unless he is prodded by Arren.  And that’s a shame, because he’s not as interesting in this novel as he was in the first two.  And for all his angst, I don’t feel like Arren is that interesting either.  Maybe it’s because their journey is so long and relatively uneventful. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  Like the previous two books, it is low on plot, but this one is high on philosophy, which I found to be a bit of a slog.  It seems like blasphemy to give LeGuin three stars, but not every book can be a home run.  Despite not caring much for this book, I’m still looking forward to the next three because they were written so much later.  It will be interesting to see where she goes with the next books.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


Suzanne van Rooyen
Completed 11/10/2018, Reviewed 11/11/2018
3 stars

I read this book because I saw a friend of mine reading it on Goodreads, it was inexpensive on Amazon, and it featured a science fiction M/M romance.  It had a lot of good imagery, and the prose was decent.  For some reason though, I couldn’t get engrossed in the story.  I read it feeling somewhat removed from the action.  I tried to let the characters get into my head, but they just wouldn’t stick.  In the end, I thought it was okay, but nothing earthshattering.

Raleigh Williams is a nineteen-year-old man in Dead Rock, Texas in the near future.  Before his brother committed suicide, Raleigh promised him he would scatter his ashes on Mars.  Now he wants to get accepted into the MarsLife program to follow through with his promise.  The only thing holding him back is his juvie record and money.  He’s saving money for the entrance exam by turning tricks with the truckers passing through town.  One night, he is nearly missed by a falling meteor.  He investigates the crash site and finds a naked man with swirls all over his body.  When the strange man wakes up, he finds he can’t remember his name or his past.  Raleigh names him Crow.  Together they try to find out who Crow is, heal Raleigh’s past, and slowly but surely fall in love. 

The plot is interesting.  It plays a lot with the concept of reality, and you constantly question whether Crow is an alien, an artificial intelligence, or a human.  He seems human, and is falling in love with Raleigh, but strange things keep happening, like his eyes shine purple and he heals instantly.  The stakes rise when it appears that they are being hunted by people in black, non-descript SUVs.  They say they are from homeland security, but they act a lot more nefariously than your average government agent. 

The characterization is pretty good as well.  Raleigh is a broken fellow.  He’s been in juvenile detention for beating up the sheriff’s son, and of course, the sheriff’s son had been harassing and bullying Raleigh for years.  Besides that, he has terrible self-esteem for being a sex worker.  He believes his is unlovable, that no one would want someone with his history, or that anyone who was interested in him would be trying to fix him.  So he loses either way.  With Crow, it’s different.  Crow seems to be the only person who might be able to pull him out of this downward spiral he’s on.  However, falling in love doesn’t jive with Raleigh’s plan to become an astronaut and get his brother’s ashes to Mars.  That’s one more monkey wrench in the burgeoning romance between the two.

The book is told in alternating POV between Crow and Raleigh.  Normally, this should let the reader really get into the heads of the main characters.  For me, it didn’t work.  I still felt third person-ish throughout the book, like I was removed from the situation.  It made the development of the romance seem to take forever, most of the book in fact.  But then the big twist in the end is pretty satisfying and in the last thirty or so pages, I was able to connect. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  The pros offset my disconnectedness from the characters.  All in all, it was a good book, just not very riveting until the end. 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Arabella of Mars

David D. Levine
Completed 11/06/2018, Reviewed 11/06/2018
3 stars

This was a fun little novel with regency era and steampunk flavoring.  It harkens back to older science fiction where there is air in space between the planets and space travel is accomplished with boats that can sail the interplanetary distances in relatively short amounts of time.  Mars has a British colony, not unlike India where the Brits own and cultivate the land and the native Martians are relegated to servant and nanny positions.  And the Napoleonic Wars occur in space as well as on Earth.  The book is pretty well written, but this is basically a fluff novel with little substance.

The year is 1813 and sixteen-year-old Arabella lives on Mars on her father’s plantation.  After playing on the Martian plains in her Martian trousers, Arabella sustains a slight head injury.  Her mother takes extreme issue with the way she is not being brought up as a proper young English lady should and brings her and her sisters back to Earth.  While on Earth, her father back on Mars dies suddenly, leaving her beloved brother Michael to run the family business.  She is sent to a cousin’s house to grieve.  Her cousin Simon gets a wild idea to murder Michael to steal the inheritance.  To stop Simon, she poses as a boy and gets a job as an airman aboard the Diana bound for Mars.  Can she hide her gender among these rough and tumble airmen long enough to make it back to Mars and save her brother?

There are some spoilers in this paragraph, so be forewarned.  Arabella is a good character, but a bit of a Mary Sue, that is, an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character.  She’s a tomboy, the only girl breaking out of the English lady mold that all the other woman are stuck in.  She’s smart, creative, adventurous, and understands the inner workings of automatons, which is a hobby of her father.  It’s that knowledge of automatons that gets her the job on the Diana.  Even though times are tough, everything she touches seems to turn to gold, even single-handedly stopping a mutiny.  She seems to constantly save the day.  It requires a lot of willing suspension of disbelief that one person can have so much good luck.  It gets to the point where you just know that everything is going to work out in the end one way or another, and that was a little disappointing.  She doesn’t have much of a growth arc, but I still liked her.

The plot itself is pretty good as well.  The time on Mars and on Earth were interesting and often exciting.  My biggest complaint was that I thought much of her time aboard the Diana was boring.  It is filled with details of ship sailing that might excite other people, but didn’t excite me.  A lot of it felt like filler.  Fortunately, it was easy reading.  I am guessing that it harkened back to the pre-SF adventure novels which featured sailing to exotic locations. 

I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s good, but nothing groundbreaking.  The trope of women hiding as men has been done a lot as has the counter-cultural woman in the 19th century.  Still, the book was basically fun, with a simple but exciting ending.  It was easy to guess what was going to happen in the end.  I’d recommend the book as a light, fluff read.    

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Tombs of Atuan

Ursula K LeGuin
Completed 11/3/2018, Reviewed 11/3/2018
4 stars

This is the second book in the Earthsea Cycle.  It’s a standalone novel, though Sparrowhawk from “A Wizard of Earthsea” is a major character.  Again, it’s beautifully written, and this time, there’s a female protagonist.  It again has a theme of good versus evil, but it is subtler in this book.  LeGuin writes subtle very well.  The book is short, the prose is tight and the characterization is really good. 

Tenar is a little girl who is taken at the age of five to be the reincarnation of the High Priestess to the gods of Atuan, the Nameless Ones.  She becomes the Eaten One, gaining a new name Arha.  Being taken at such an early age, she forgets her past life and learns the ways of being a priestess.  She does ritual dances, decides the fates of prisoners, is the sole heir to the catacombs beneath the temple which are guarded by the Nameless Ones.  One day she finds Sparrowhawk in the catacombs.  She locks him in, and reports this treasonous act.  Of course, it is she who must decide his fate.  For some reason, she decides not to kill him, but hides him there, slowly learning about the rest of the world.  Sparrowhawk asks Arha to leave with him, and she must decide if she will stay and let him die, or leave and learn a whole new way to live.

Arha is a wonderful character.  She starts out a simple child.  She is taken in by the priestesses where she learns her new role.  She slowly becomes indoctrinated into the order and becomes as corrupt and ruthless as the other priestesses.  But when Sparrowhawk shows up, she’s intrigued by him.  She slowly comes to realize the futility of her present situation.  It’s amazing how she has this metanoia so believably in such a short book.  It’s a tribute to LeGuin’s power with words and storytelling. 

I don’t have too much else to say about this book.  If I did, I would just be repeating myself from the previous book’s review.  It has the same style and tone.  I’m guessing the next book in the series will also be short, as it was written so quickly after this one.  I give the book four stars out of five. 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sacred Band

Joseph D. Carriker Jr.
Completed 11/01/2018, Reviewed 11/02/2018
4 stars

This book is an interesting take on the superhero trope.  It’s set in a world after superheroes have had their heyday.  Now they are not vigilantes making things right.  In fact, they’re trained by the government to control their gifts and live normal lives, having them redirect their gifts towards being productive members of society.  Of course, this doesn’t last long when LGBTQ and other disenfranchised youth start disappearing around the world and nobody else is helping to look for them.  This is a really good first novel by a local Portland author.  Though I thought the writing was a bit weak and some of the dialogue a little hokey, the plot and the humanity of the characters really made up for it. 

The story introduces us to Rusty, a young gay man living in Portland who has a superpower of sensing and manipulating magnetic fields.  He’s called an Echo, someone who has found themselves with a superpower after a strange natural event.  There are lots of Echoes, as strange natural events keep happening around the world.  They are normal like everyone else except for this one power.  Rusty’s best friend is Deosil (pronounced JESH-il), a transgendered woman who has the power to channel the earth’s energy.

There are also Originals, the first twenty-two people with superpowers.  They have multiple powers and are more like Superman.  The last group are the Empowered, people whom the government turned into superheroes.

Everything is basically going fine for Rusty until he realizes that a Facebook friend in the Ukraine has gone missing.  He believes that some terrible fate has befallen him because the Ukraine has been recriminalizing homosexuality and not pursuing the perpetrators of hate crimes.  Rusty enlists the help of Sentinel, a retired Original who also happens to be gay to go clandestinely to the Ukraine to find out what happened to his friend.  What they uncover is far more nefarious and leads to an ultimate showdown of good versus evil. 

What I liked best about the book was the portrayal of the characters.  They were all very human even though they have special powers.  They were all on the LGBTQ spectrum and all had struggled with coming out in some form or another.  Most of them were reluctant heroes as well, not really wanting to be in the spotlight, and certainly not intending to be role models for LGBTQ youth, but ending up that way.  I particularly could identify with Sentinel, whose real name is Mitch.  He’s came out in the eighties when his partner Radiant, another one of the Originals, was killed by an evil Original.  After a terrible media storm, he goes into seclusion trying to live his life as a normal human, until Rusty calls on him to help him in his quest to find the missing Ukrainian man. 

I liked the plot.  It’s very comic-bookish, with lots of action.  You can easily see this being translated into a graphic novel or a film.  But there’s also a lot of world-building and character development.  The first chapter was a little difficult, with a detailed explanation of the origins of the Originals, Empowered, and Echoes.  That’s followed by a fairly long buildup introducing Rusty and Deosil.  But it all works well and is highly readable.  That said, I thought the writing was a little lacking.  The prose was a little too basic, with no real style per se.  It’s told in third person omniscient following Rusty, but it could have been a little tighter with better word choices. 

I give the book four stars out of five.  I had a lot of fun with the book.  The entertainment value helped me forgive the weak prose.  It doesn’t have a tight ending, leaving it open for a sequel, which I would definitely read.

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula K LeGuin
Completed 10/30/2018, Reviewed 10/30/2018
4 stars

“A Wizard of Earthsea” is the first book in the Earthsea Cycle.  It is a beautiful book about a young magician coming to know himself.  It was written for a young adult audience before YA was a genre.  But it is more than simply a YA novel.  It’s themes of the hero’s journey, good versus evil, and embracing the shadow self speaks to all ages.  It is a fantasy novel without a war or some other “us versus them” trope. 

Duny is a young goat herder on a small island in the Earthsea archipelago.  Duny is his birth name.  As he grows up, he shows a propensity for magic under the tutelage of his aunt, a witch.  During this time, he comes to be known as Sparrowhawk.  But neither Duny nor Sparrowhawk is his true name.  He only finds that out once he becomes an apprentice to the local wizard.  Sparrowhawk however is impatient with the slowness of his studies, so the local wizard sends him to a school for wizards (thirty years before Harry Potter).  There, on a dare, he awakens the ghost of a long dead woman, which also unleashes an evil shadow into the world of the living.  His mission becomes to find and conquer the shadow before it conquers him. 

That is just a barebones overview of the plot.  It is much more textured and nuanced than that.  In typical LeGuin form, the plot is not very exciting save for a battle of wits with a dragon and an enchantress.  Like her much later “Annals of the Western Shore” novels (Gifts, Voices, and Powers), it is heavy on world building and mood.  There is a lot of detail about the nature of magic and the power of words and names.  Magic takes energy and can take its toll on the wielder.  It should not be wielded without understanding the implications of its execution.  For example, stopping a storm in one place can cause a flood somewhere else.  Regarding names, once you know the true name of something, it gives you power over that thing.  It’s all very sophisticated and well developed for such a short book.

The prose is interesting.  It is sparse, but beautiful.  It’s one of those books where you feel like nothing written could be thrown away.  It isn’t full of similes to pad up the novel.  LeGuin simply uses strong nouns and adjectives. 

Being such a short book, there isn’t much character development except for the protagonist.  And even that is minimal.  We don’t really get into the head of Sparrowhawk.  His story is told almost as if performed by a storyteller around a campfire, with a lot of exposition and little dialogue.  Still, it is easy to relate to him as he succumbs to the prodding of a young girl, accepts a dare to show off to his colleagues at wizard school, and wallows in despair as he makes his journey to find the evil shadow.  It’s interesting to note that Sparrowhawk and most of the characters are not white.  LeGuin very subtly made the characters people of color at a time when fantasy was dominated by European derived races. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a classic from which many authors have gotten inspiration, like the Harry Potter series and anything with a school for magic.  I read what was then just the Earthsea Trilogy back in college and loved it.  Rereading this first book, it felt fresh as ever, despite the lack of women in the story.  The second book’s protagonist is female, though.  I really look forward to reading the rest of the cycle, which is now a total of six books.