I’ve got mixed feelings about this book.
Perhaps I would have been more thoroughly satisfied (as I generally am with Le Guin, a wonderful writer) if I had have read ‘Tehanu’ – the only book in the series I’ve missed. There, I presume, she developed Tenar, her relationship with Ged, and her daughter, and this would have made this book work better for me. Maybe. But without that I found Tenar a tad clichéd, I don’t know, just a bit too ‘happily ever after’. A curious thing with Le Guin: she can be quite preoccupied with gender and sexual relationships, and she’s a beacon as a woman writing in a male dominated field (although can you still make this comment post Harry Potter?), yet while I find some of her musings poignant and honest, I find her resolutions in this area to be relatively twee. That’s here with storybook Ged and Tenar, Alder and his perfect lost marriage, and, of course, with all the condescending chuckling going on with Lebannen, the princess, and the inevitability of love they amusingly deny (and did I miss something vital in ‘Tehanu’ that explains why all of a sudden it’s OK to share your true name with anyone: when did that lose all its power in this world? Makes a mockery of, for example, the sacrifice and trust of giving your name up to be allowed to enter the school on Roke). Seserakh is so clichéd: high-spirited (makes me think of a French ingénue in the one Georgette Heyer I’ve read, or of Ce’nedra (?) in the Belgariad), Barbie-doll, arrogance just waiting to be turned to aggressively adorable devotion.
Not so long ago I read Le Guin’s SF short story collection, ‘The Birthday of the World’. Hopefully I’ll get around to a more thorough review soon, but running with this line, again for so many stories centred on explorations of marriage, love, romance, inter-gender relationships, once couples get over the hurdles to recognising their mutual affection – in whatever form this takes – the story for Le Guin appears to be over. There are plenty of other writers who explore this sort of thing too, with a much wiser acknowledgement that while a moment of realisation and declaration of mutual love is a big deal, it’s the beginning of something way more textured and complex than Le Guin tends to offer.
I enjoyed the opening of this book, and was really looking forward to getting back to Earthsea. Trekking along with Alder worked beautifully as a way to open a new story and reintroduce Ged in a new role. And as a friend pointed out to me, there’s not too many other heroes that get to have such a satisfactory retirement, particularly in the way he really does step aside. The everyday characters were also given individuality, with an awareness of how little some great events and people impinged on their lives. However, as the story went on I became less engaged – particularly with the dragons. Previously I’d relished the power and mystery Le Guin had evoked around her dragons, but, sorry, here’s a couple of girls that can just occasionally turn into dragons. Isn’t that nice for them. And that whole cosmos shaking truth – that people seeking an afterlife is the source of all woe – as something that any Karg has just known forever, and it’s some sort of surprise to all the wisest, with all their lore and exhaustive study, is just too breathtakingly implausible for all the weight given to it. Seserakh casually drops in the truth of the ages, as if there’s never been any interaction between Kargs and people of the archipeligo in the last, what, few millennia. A Karg is one of the Nine chief wizards of Roke: what, is he meant to slap his forehead and go, “Oh, yeah, that’s right,” after all the exchanges of the changes going on in the land beyond the wall. The ‘just let go of any yearning for an afterlife’ message also fits with the novella of ‘The Birthday of the World’ – Le Guin manipulating her invented worlds to preach a pretty unsubtle message of condemnation to any who believe in life after death.
So Le Guin still has an impressive array of evocative skills, but this story hinged on some plot devices and characters that I couldn’t enjoy.