Revisiting Earthsea by Ursula le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan

I am ashamed to say that I came to Ursula Le Guin pretty late, via one of my favourite authors, Lian Hearn. I am revisiting some books I really admire and trying to identify the ‘behind the scenes’ mechanisms that make them work. So rather than a review, this is more of a learning exercise for me and also a bit of tribute after her death earlier this year. B8E2E699-D364-4D71-A033-D5EBC13A717AHere are my thoughts:

How do you get readers to care about your protagonist?

The obvious answer is to make them likeable and relatable. But what I love about ULG is that she is unafraid and nonconformist. She makes the characters flawed in ways that are at times challenging for the reader. As with the first protagonist in this series(the wizard in book 1), there are times when Arha exhibits some alarming character traits. But you still want to stick with her, you’re still invested. Why? I think because the author is very skilled at weaving in just the right amount of redemption and, there is promise of the plot engineering growth and evolution in the character.

Letting the character drive the story. By modern standards, the first half of this book may seem like it has very little going on. I (tried to) read a new book in the same genre recently which began slap bang in the middle of a fight scene. The aim was clear; immediate engagement with the reader, twists and turns every couple of pages. I personally prefer to be lured into the world by anticipation rather than be thrown into a kerfuffle on the first page. Yes, the setting is explored at length in Atuan but this lends bags of atmosphere to the story. The tombs are in nearly all of the scenes, a character in their own right and  their description ties in beautifully and symbolically with Arha’s bondage to her circumstance. ULG’s use of language, particularly of landscape and architecture is something to be savoured and this sort of story telling is apt for her skills. As with the first Earthsea book, there are hints of magic to come and when the escalation in action ties in with the evolution in the character, it feels more satisfying and less like Kung Fu Panda.

Notes about the edit. This is 51k words but feels longer due to the general wordiness. I don’t think the book could have sustained a longer narrative at this pace so it works well. I noticed in the first book and in this, the repetition of words within short intervals, and wondered why the editor hadn’t suggested changes. But then, I realised I was noting them from a writing perspective. As a reader, they are unobtrusive. It reminded me a little of one of Stephen King’s adages in ‘On Writing’. [Why use a complicated word when a simple one will suffice? You’ll only be using a poorer cousin that doesn’t quite mean what the original word intended].

Some words like “ensorcelled” and “brangle”, you’ll be hard pressed to see used today. It’d be a shame if these words are lost so I think, genre allowing, writers should try to sneak them in.

The cover. Slightly weird I know, but every book I read takes on a colour. It’s usually related to the predominant visual that the book throws up in my mind and I love it when the cover reflects this. The edition I have doesn’t really work for me (I mean, blue and orange, really?!). FD02A1B7-D3F9-4736-98B4-FEA0C64DBA3CThe theme of this book cover has got to be black. Most of the action takes place in utter darkness and the wizard’s floaty light thing is symbolic of change/hope so that had to be in there to break it up. I had a quick look on the net and the closest one I could find I used at the top.

The most ridiculous one is this one which is artisticallyE0578E0E-E99B-49F5-9BFE-5F693410E09A absolutely stunning (well done, artist!) but looks like it’s set wherever Tinkerbell lives. (And Ged has morphed into Adonis for some reason).


Fave passage(there are many) but have a read of this for a description of someone who has never come across the sea.

And Tenar listened to the sea, a few yards below the cave mouth, crashing and sucking and booming on the rocks, and the thunder of it down the beach eastward for miles. Over and over and over it made the same sounds, yet never quite the same. It never rested. On all the shores of all the lands in all the world, it heaved itself in these unresting waves, and never ceased, and never was still. The desert, the mountains: they stood still. They did not cry out forever in a great, dull voice. The sea spoke forever, but its language was foreign to her. She did not understand.

What I didn’t like. I feel like a heretic criticising ULG. However, no book is perfect. If I’d have ever had the utter good fortune of meeting her and for some bizarre reason she asked for my take on it, I would say, ‘Ursula, in my humble opinion, it’s a bit exposition-y in the first third and the back stories are sometimes not that important to the narrative and with the abundance of strange place and people names and stuff, I got a bit confused. And also, the denouement needed more supernatural, more magic. Maybe because the antagonists were not embodied and there was very little wizardry, it was slightly deflating after a longish build up but I’m such a huge, huge fan so please just tell me to shut up and sign all my Earthsea books please.”

Alas, it can never happen. But, the books live on and will enthral readers for many, many more years to come, I’m sure.


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