My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The blurb on the book said Le Guin was to be ranked among Lewis and Tolkien, which was probably why the tattered paperback had survived through so many shelf purges even though I had never yet read it. I finally did, and I think the blurb was correct. There’s a richness, a thickness to the prose coupled with a simplicity in the telling. It’s a simple story, lacking the complexities and mechanics of much of contemporary fantasy, but it’s better for it. It’s about growing up, friendship, learning wisdom, learning to take responsibility for one’s choices. It is also about magic and the wonder of a new world. I think the magic here might be one of the most compelling aspects, because again, it’s simple and somehow true without a bunch of trappings. Magic is about knowing things, about naming things truly. That seems right. I read it, and I should have read it when I was twelve, so I immediately passed it along to a bright twelve-year-old I know.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Do you remember the scene in The Horse and His Boy where Shasta has to spend the night at the tombs outside the city of Tashbaan and how creepy it was and how Lewis never really explained the tombs but you knew they were old and foreboding and had entire dark stories of their own? The Tombs of Atuan, the setting for the second book of the Earthsea trilogy of the same title, have that same feel, but we as readers spend the greater portion of the book exploring their secrets. The book focuses on Arha, the Eaten One, the high (and only) priestess of the Nameless Ones who live in the Tombs. Taken from her family at a young age, the only life she knows is that of service to these gods almost forgotten by all outside the desert shrine that houses the Tombs.
The book starts slowly. Coming on the heels of the first volume, it almost lost me in the first two chapters. The main character of the previous novel, Ged, does not make his appearance until almost halfway through the book. But soon the mystery of the tombs themselves makes itself felt, and you’re drawn into Arha’s world and the Gormenghast-like rituals of the tombs and the labyrinth beneath. When Ged finally does show up, the sense of incongruity he represents as a foreigner and stranger to this dark world is effective and dramatic. From there, the plot unfolds quickly (though somewhat predictably).
Where was LeGuin when I was a kid looking for “Christian” fantasy? According to Family Christian Stores, this genre extended to pretty much Lewis, Stephen R. Lawhead, and Frank Peretti. Why wasn’t LeGuin there, bringing some literary depth to these shelves? If the theme of the previous volume, A Wizard of Earthsea, was growing into wisdom and true friendship, this one is redemption. Consider what Ged tells Arha upon leaving the Tombs: “You were the vessel of evil. The evil is poured out. It is done. It is buried in its own tomb. You were never made for cruelty and darkness; you were made to hold light, as a lamp burning holds and gives its light.”
Highly recommended, especially if you know a young person looking for some quality fantasy that speaks wisdom and goodness without beating you over the head with an explicitly Christian metaphor or allusion every other page.