I first picked up this book when I was a kid. I read probably only a few pages, then put it down again, thinking it was boring. I recently picked up the whole series of 4 books at the Blue Parrot (2nd hand book store) and decided to give them a second chance.
It`s the origin story of Ged, a Gontish kid who will (in later books) become an awesome wizard. He has issues with power and his peers- always wanting to be the best and most respected amongst them. That character flaw (uh, arrogance) leads him into a very difficult situation when his showing-off releases a Gebbeth demon from the other side, which will stalk him until it can suck out his marrow and take over his body like a zombie. If Ged wants to escape it`s clutches alive, he`s going to have to seriously man up.
Let`s get into it.
It`s not the way we write now…
The first thing I noticed was the way it`s written. It`s not the way we tend to write now, which is understandable since it was first published in 1968. The way we tend to write now is perhaps a new invention, inspired by the immediacy of film, spurred on by thrillers and detective stories that crackle with conflict. Though we are telling stories as writers, we try to avoid actually telling them directly. Now we get our characters to tell the story for us. We get inside their heads (inspired by reality TV?) and see the story from their viewpoint. The world is bounded for us by their bounds, by their timeline, by what they know and don`t know.
This style lends immediacy, puts pressure on every scene has to pop, and (done well) constantly gives us another hook to follow to get us to read on to the next page.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin felt quite different from that. It felt much more like an omniscient bard sitting comfortably by the fire, telling an old tale. This results in a diffusion of conflict and tension. It reduces the amount of dialogue. It smoothes every peak and trough of the story out with the narratorial voice.
That`s probably what turned me off as a kid. At no point am I given a reason to care about this character. For the first 30 or 40 pages Ged (or Duny as he begins) is just some kid watching goats and developing some rudimentary magic skills. He shows twinkles of greatness, but who really cares at this stage? There was no hook, just a kind of implied understanding that `hey, you know fantasy, this is a fantasy, it`s your kind of thing, so read on…`
It`s your kind of thing…
In fact, the only hook given to us comes in the blurb on the back cover-
Ged was the greatest sorceror in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, and …
OK. So at some later point he will be great, but we won`t be hearing too much about that in this book. This book is a creation myth, a prequel, that presupposes we`re already interested in Ged. But as a kid I wasn`t, so didn`t read on. Lord of the Rings opens with about 100 pages of nothing too, but I was able to plough through that because I`d heard such great things about it. Earthsea always seemed like the poorer cousin.
So, that aside, how is the book? Well, it`s very nice, though I don`t feel that it ever really kicks much butt. Ged is a kid, he`s poncing around with magic, he gets a rivalry with a guy called Jasper which he never really settles, he picks up an evil shadow, and eventually deals with it. I spent about a half of the book waiting for something to happen, then the second half waiting for it to be done with. The world and the magic were very interesting, but still, throughout I kept on waiting for the big reason I was supposed to be reading.
If anything, it feels like a prototype. An early model with lots of potential, but not really able to do the hard work, more a synopsis of what could be than the actual product itself. Of course I know it`s the first in a series, so I won`t judge fully until I`ve read them all. But…
Harry Potter and Alvin Maker
But let`s look at it as a prototype, upon which others have built great works. It has undoubtedly been the inspiration for lots of other stories. Most recent is the school for wizards in Harry Potter. There`s somethign very similar in Earthsea, with the various types of classes, weird school locations, the rites to become a wizard, the beneficent arch-wizard who dies, and so on. Of course Rowling took the idea and really fleshed it out.
Another is Orson Scott Card`s Alvin Maker series, about a magic boy born in the US who has a bright destiny foretold, but also a shadow constantly seeking to kill him. Tension comes in that story right from the boy`s birth, as the shadow seeks to choke him as he comes out of the womb. Throughout it continues to strike at him, through alligators, fallen bridges, and so on. It was a great series until a few books in, when Card seemed to lose his way and the shadow became pretty pathetic (and repetitive. Alligators again?)
Of course this is a very common trope- good guy has an evil counterpart, and through needing to fight it he becomes stronger and greater. It`s an underpinning thread in my Dawn Cycle too.
So, yes, I think nice is as strong (and as damning) as I`m going to get, at least until I read the rest.