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The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin (1971) 155p.

earthsea covers are a great way to find out which publishing companies are racist

This is the second book in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, being a sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea. I read the first book a very long time ago, probably when I was about twelve, and again more recently. My impression of it was the same both times: oddly boring. It has all the makings of an excellent fantasy adventure, but never seems to quite pull them together, resulting in a novel that’s only slightly above average.

I think a large part of this lies in Le Guin’s narrative tone, which is extremely dry. Unfortunately, this carries over into The Tombs of Atuan, which follows the story of Tenar, a young girl taken from childhood to be raised as a priestess in service to the “Nameless Ones.” Her life is interrupted by the arrival of Ged, the titular wizard from the first book, who breaks into the tombs below her temple and raises some struggles of belief for Tenar.

Fantasy is meant to be escapism. We’re meant to be dazzled by it, swept along in a tide of swashbuckling adventure, enchanted by gleaming white cities and jungle-covered ruins and airships floating high in the clouds. What Le Guin gives us instead is a very cold, sterile, dull world; a place of tombs and temples and strict religious orders. It is a well-realised world, but not a world I want to spend time in.

Having said that, I did enjoy The Tombs of Atuan more than A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s a well-told story, much more tightly paced and structured than the last, and at only 155 pages it doesn’t drag on. The crumbling of Tenar’s personal belief system is particularly well-handled; as she gradually rejects what she has been taught to believe, and makes the decision to flee the temple with Ged, I never once found her mental processes to be unbelievable. In spite of its flaws, I’d give this a thumbs up, and may consider reading the rest of the series at some point. Le Guin is certainly a gifted writer; I just wish she could instill more of a sense of fantasy.

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March 2009