Written on the 17th May
cw: child abuse
This is the fourth book in the “Earthsea Cycle” (cycle?), and the first – when it was published – for about twenty years.
I don’t know if you’ve read any of the Earthsea books or any of my comments about them on TriumphoftheNow.com before, but they’re enjoyable, if uncomplex, fantasy stories set in a magical island world of wizards and witches and dragons.
The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is about a young goatherd becoming a wizard and sewing the seeds for his own destruction in youthful magical innocence, but then making friends with a dragon and saving some people from a thing. The second one, The Tombs of Atuan, is about a young woman who is trapped in a temple by a weird magical cult who possess some very important magical objects, which the boy-wizard (now a young man-wizard) from the first book is seeking. The two young adults help each other to get out of the creepy tombs with powerful magical objects. The third one, The Farthest Shore is set twenty-five years later, and in this one the same wizard – now the most powerful wizard in the world – helps to restore a fallen monarchy (but the king is nice so it’s ok) and finally – in the land of the dead with the yet-to-be-restored king – fights the sinister evil that’s been stalking him since childhood. In the process, though, he has to use every last drop of magic power he has, right, and then the soon-to-be-king drags the wizard out of the “land of the dead” (it’s basically the same “land of the dead” as in His Dark Materials) and then they catch a ride on a dragon back to the centre of Earthsea.
This one, Tehanu, is different from the books that have come before in the series in that it is set immediately after the end of Book Three. We open with Tenar, the now-middle-aged (but pre-menopause and, yes, this is directly stated) woman who was trapped in the tombs by the cult, who is now living a sedate life after marrying a farmer who is now dead and raising two now-adult children. Because her sailor son is off at sea and the patriarchal local laws mean the farm is officially his, Tenar seems unconfident in the future, and becomes the guardian of a young girl who has been found in the neighbourhood, close to death, after being sexually assaulted and severely burned by fire. So though, yes, this book is marketed towards “Young Readers”, it does include child sexual and physical abuse and the resultant trauma from this as key plot points. And though there is a magical threat that builds in the background (because this is set in a magical world) to be confronted at the novel’s end, the most tense scenes are those in which the men who abused the child reappear and attempt to “finish the job”.
Into this situation, the now-unmagic former “best wizard in the world” arrives on the back of a dragon, and once he’s recovered from his injuries and let the king know that he won’t be attending his coronation, he settles down to normal life which he embraces by breaking the wizard’s vow to celibacy and shagging the woman he helped in those tombs many years ago.
The ex-wizard, though, is not powerful: it is his lover who teaches him how to act, how to be, now he no longer has his magic. With the severely-scarred child (who has magical secrets of her own which are teased out, squeezed out, by Le Guin in a gentle, though unsubtle, way), the three of them form a non-traditional family unit and make friends with local witches and some local wizards and the good representatives of the good new king. They also make an enemy of a bad local wizard and it is this antagonist who must be confronted and overcome by the long-anticipated reveal of the child’s true powers/identity.
It’s good, and it’s very different from the other books in the series in that it is both simultaneously more able to stand on its own but also much closer in chronological plotting. All the first three had multiple years slash decades in between the action, whereas this one begins at the other end of the fast journey book three ends with. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and complex and, yes, I will 100% certainly be reading the final two books (one of which is a collection of short stories, boooo) sooner rather than later.
In other news:
I realise I am years late to the game here, but in the last few days I have discovered a new beverage and it has revolutionised my evenings.
Finally, I have found a drink that hits my dual needs for complexity without weightiness, for alcohol without heavy calories: I am a newfound convert to the vodka soda.
I know this isn’t revolutionary as a concept, but for me it is new. For years, I’ve wanted to find an early evening (i.e. pre-wine/pre-dinner) drink that can be sipped slowly without a) inciting big drunkenness or b) filling the stomach uncomfortably after several refills. Three vodka sodas does not do the damage of three gin martinis, and nor does it do the bloating of three beers.
It is the perfect halfway point between a beer and a sparkling water and I NOW LOVE IT.
With weeks-to-months of lockdown remaining, I’m sure I’ve got time to become a connoisseur of the vodka soda, so I look forward to adventuring through ALL the [cheap] artisanal vodkas available at my local liquor store. Yes, please!
Glug glug glug!