Completed 11/19/2018, Reviewed 11/20/2018
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.