Team Mecha Dragons
Synthetic leather wings cut through the cool night air. A snap of electrical discharge, a quick whiff of ozone, and they are gone. Long have the techno-mages tried—and failed—to study these mysterious creatures. The Mecha Dragons have left their eyries, and they are READING.
Book 2: A Wizard of Earthsea
Originally published in 1968, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea marks the first of the six now beloved Earthsea titles. Ged was the greatest sorcerer in Earthsea, but in his youth he was the reckless Sparrowhawk. In his hunger for power and knowledge, he tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. This is the tumultuous tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death’s threshold to restore the balance.
What did you think of the book’s setting?
Ian: I think the setting is really unique especially for a fantasy. I’ve not read any “high fantasy” stories before or since that are based on a network of islands like this. And it was fleshed out very well despite the book not being overly long.
Bo: Loved it. It’s fully realized in just about every way. The world is very consistent, locations are set up ahead of time and delivered on, the everyday life of the people is well-established and makes it feel real. And I love locations so focused on the sea and islands.
Katie: I really liked it for a couple of reasons. So many fantasy maps are a giant chunk of land surrounded by ocean. I like that Earthsea sort of flips that around.
Kori: Yeah, normally we see sprawling land masses, giant mountains, etc.
Priscilla: I loved it! It was one of the book’s highlights for me, though the book has many highlights. It uses many elements that I appreciate and it uses them well. Archipelago with tons of islands? Check. Casual references of Earthsea’s history and lore all over the book? Check. Solid magic system using one of my favorite interpretations for mystical powers? Check. I want to read many more stories in this setting. And I’m sad I didn’t invent it first!
On the other hand, my biggest issue with the book can also be considered an issue with the setting, so… But we’ll get there.
Katie: I also like how the setting is presented: the islands are just sort of mentioned casually and the reader can or cannot look them up on the map. It’s very loose, relaxed worldbuilding and it makes the world feel real and lived-in. And the fact that that magic is rooted in the land immediately imbues the land with intrigue, I think.
Bo: There’s a danger inherent to the ocean that makes it easy to create tension in something so simple as traveling. It really adds to a story so dependent on the hardships of a character when that character faces hardships just traveling from place to place.
Kori: I like a little more detail in my fantasy worlds, but for no longer than what the book is, Le Guin packed a ton of detail in without going overboard.
Ian: I didn’t reference the map too much, it didn’t really feel necessary.
Katie: I did, but only because I LOVE fantasy maps
Priscilla: Yes, Katie, I like that too. I referenced the map a lot because I feel I *have* to know where the characters are. I also like the idea that the open ocean is so mysterious and potentially dangerous…
Bo: I think I went for the map a couple times just to be sure, but eventually just kind of went with it. I had a general idea of where everything was at a certain point.
Katie: Yes! Me too, Priscilla. I, like, compulsively looked everything up, even if it didn’t matter?
Bo: Yeah, Priscilla, you really feel it at the end when everyone Ged talks to says “There’s nothing past this point.”
Ian: Fair enough.
And I kinda believe them, but I’m also “NO I WANNA SEE WHAT’S THERE”! Is Earthsea round? I have to know!
Did the characters resonate with you? What did you think of them in general?
Kori: While Priscilla channels her inner Moana, I wanna talk about Ged and Ogion. Namely, I really wish Ogion would have done more with Ged earlier on, but I can see why they aren’t flashed out. Ged has to pop out a Melisandre-esque shadow baby, and he can’t do that if Ogion is being more attentive.
Katie: Ah, the characters are interesting in this story. I think they’re largely flat outside of Ged, but I think that’s intentional and that it (usually) doesn’t hurt the story. It’s such an intensely personal journey for Ged, that everything gets filtered through him. He gives certain people dimension and depth (Vetch, Ogion) but he doesn’t really give it to others (Jasper, Serret).
Bo: Characters are my only major issue with the book. Ged’s pretty much the only character given development. Everyone else is just kind of there and never changes. Which is fine since this was a short book focused solely on Ged but a couple of the secondary characters intrigued me. I was disappointed to get NOTHING out of it.
Priscilla: About the characters… Maybe I’m just used to ginormous casts like in A Song of Ice and Fire, but I feel this book doesn’t have that many characters. It makes sense for a standalone book heavily focused on an internal coming-of-age journey, though. I like the ones we got, but I feel I want to know a lot of them better, like the masters at Roke!
Katie: Yeah, maybe it’s my Harry Potter experience, but I was like “what? he’s leaving Roke already? I need more wacky wizarding school hijinks!”
Ian: I liked Vetch a lot. What little we got of him was plenty, and he was very endearing.
Katie: Vetch was such a sweetheart.
Bo: Agreed, I understand it was the style and I can’t be hard on the book for not doing something it never meant to do.
Priscilla: I really like the little we had of Ogion, though I would love to spend more time with him. And Vetch was so important! I honestly cried when he told Ged his real name. I’m such a baby. And I’m all in for kind characters and genuine friendships.
Kori: They’re just kinda “around” if they aren’t serving Ged’s hero journey.
Ian: I could read a whole book about Ogion.
Katie: Me too. I feel like to a certain extent he’s one of the few characters Ged really respected and saw as another autonomous person. Ged is sort of a dick sometimes? I feel like Ogion was so good for him.
Kori: Like, how many students like Ged does Ogion have to put up with? Does he have an island crawling with student spawned shadow babies?
Bo: It feels weird that there is this huge potential danger if Ged’s shadow finds and takes control, but no one seems to care despite worrying about this?
Priscilla: Yeah, now that you mentioned it, I’m surprised folks at Roke weren’t more worried about this. I know it was Ged’s thing to solve, but still.
Ian: Ged is a total ass at the beginning.
Katie: I got the impression Ogion doesn’t have many students, though I’m not entirely sure why.
Bo: There’s your crossover. Earthsea is Asshai, and Melisandre is his one female student. That’s why wizard schools don’t take them anymore. Problematic patriarchy solved.
Priscilla: That’s why Melisandre’s past is such a mystery! Yes. Ged is an interesting protagonist because he’s very flawed, yet I still like him. But I don’t think it would have worked if he was older – he begins the story too proud and too arrogant, in a way I can only accept as part of his general immaturity.
Anyways, yes. Ged is an interesting protagonist because he’s very flawed, yet I still like him. But I don’t think it would have worked if he was older – he begins the story too proud and too arrogant, in a way I can only accept as part of his general immaturity.
Katie: I liked him too. He was awful in a way that was totally rooted in his immaturity. And he does eventually learn from it.
Bo: Ged’s development was amazing. When I realized the book would focus so heavily on him, I worried about whether I would like it. Typically you get these flawless protagonists who have to battle the morons around them, but it was Ged making mistakes every step of the way.
Priscilla: I like Turin, so maybe I have a thing for assholes. (hijack all RRs with Tolkien 2k17)
Kori: But that leads us to
What didn’t work with the novel?
Katie: The book struck me as very mythical. In the traditional sense of a myth. Because of that, I thought a lot of the “flat” characters were largely supposed to function are archetypes more than people, if that makes sense.
Priscilla: It does.
Kori: I’m not a fan of “true” names.
Ian: Needed more dragons.
Kori: As a plot device in any fantasy, it’s never been my jam. Furthermore, I really hate it when they’re a good deal into the story before the name changes. Then it’s just confusing.
Priscilla: I actually love “true names”!
But what didn’t work for me… That one is very easy to answer because it’s my only complaint with the book: the unexplainable absence of female characters and treatment of the few ones we got.
Kori: Yeah, well, you love Tolkien so I’m not surprised.
Katie: I don’t always like true names, but I thought it worked REALLY well here. It seemed to mesh perfectly with the setting.
Bo: I’m with Katie in that sometimes the book bounced between this inner, highly personal journey, but then you get these long passages that read like a myth told by a fire. I wish it stuck to the personal more often.
Priscilla: “True names” can be very generic (some horror movies are guilty of this), but I think they worked nicely here too.
Bo: True names were a mixed bag for me. I’m not a fan of the way the device was used to end the main conflict, but I like how true names limited the magic wizards were capable of.
Ian: Honestly this is a favorite book of mine, so it’s difficult to find fault. If anything, it’s the gender politics. It never stood out to me before how poorly the story treats what few women there are.
Priscilla: Yeah, the gender issue is honestly my only complaint
Kori: I read it and took five minutes. And then realized I couldn’t remember ANY of the ladies. They were that shallow as far as characters and representation went.
Katie: I would agree with that too. The more I thought about it the more I thought that it would be easy to keep all the mythical tropes and archetypes but also, like, include one or two real human women.
Priscilla: I can remember ALL the ladies: we have Ged’s aunt (does she have a name?), Serret, Yarrow (Vetch’s sister) and the Kargish lady.
Ian: The aunt is treated like more of a quack or hustler than an actual magic user. And the fact that women are not permitted in the Roke school.
Bo: Serret could have been amazing. She was totally bungled right when she could have broken free of the stereotype.
Ian: I mean, there could possibly be a women’s academy, but it’s not mentioned.
Katie: Yeah. Given the general tenor of the world, I’d be surprised if there’s one?
Priscilla: See, this is why I say this is a setting issue too because the setting was excessively patriarchal for no good reason at all. Why women can’t go to Roke? Why there are no women wizards? Why women occupy a mostly domestic and passive position in this society? Patriarchal societies are not the default, so if you have an invented world there must be a good reason for this world to be patriarchal. And I understand if you wanna go the GRRM route and use your fantasy world as a social commentary (whether he was successful or not is another discussion), but this is not the case here. There are no female voices and no exploration on the patriarchy whatsoever.
Katie: Le Guin is leaning REALLY heavily on tropes. And I think she uses them well in general, to create something vibrant and fresh. But the gender politics don’t translate well.
Ian: Priscilla, I think, from reading the afterward, LeGuin was afraid of going too far off the beaten path from “traditional” fantasy. She already snuck in racial diversity.
Bo: Good point, Ian. I’m inclined to give this book a break because of the time when it was written compared to if it released now.
Priscilla: Yes, I had that impression too. I understand it was hard for a female fantasy writer in the 60s, but at the same time as part of a modern audience, I feel I have to point that out.
Kori: And considering the time when Earthsea was written, this was a nice branch off of the plodding, word vomit you see in high fantasy works prior. There’s a delightful contrast between Le Guin fantasy and Tolkien fantasy.
Priscilla: CAREFUL, KORI
Katie: KORI I SWEAR TO GOD
What did work with the novel?
Kori: I loved that the land was so prominent in the story. You can tell she was drawing off of some background of more than one Native American tribal legend, which I appreciated.
Bo: you’re right. It’s nice to get a fully fleshed out fantasy world that you can tell the author put lots of work into, but without needing to read a huge epic to experience it.
Ian: The setting is what really worked for me. Even the small islands with nothing but a handful of people seemed to have the feel of an entirely new setting with its own lore and history. With that many islands, the possibilities are endless.
Kori: Earthsea was definitely the start of a more modern brand of fantasy. It didn’t have to be the size of a dictionary to tell a good story.
Katie: I did appreciate that about it. We need more 200-page stand-alone fantasies. That’s also a good point, Ian. Everything felt fully-formed even though we only got glimpses.
Priscilla: Yes, I like that it was such an internal journey but with a great worldbuilding. I feel so often we only have one of the two.
Katie: Also, this is a bit off topic – but I thought the prose was absolutely beautiful, it was so pleasant and lovely to read.
Ian: It’s very easy to read, and that’s not to say it isn’t complex. It managed to tell a very deep story using a very elegant and simple prose.
Priscilla: YES. I highlighted so many quotes.
Bo: I loved how each island had that realistic feel of their own cultures that shared similarities you’d expect from their shared environments.
Kori: I loved that the different island populations weren’t a monolith.
Bo: And island populations are almost ALWAYS a monolith. Within the first chapter, you get two vastly different cultures and people despite their islands being located fairly close.
Priscilla: Yes, Kori, good point. I want to read all books in this setting. You know, despite the issues I still loved this one, and it’s such a fascinating setting…
Kori: Earthsea was the beginning of the modern fantasy bildungsroman. You didn’t have to invest hours upon hours of time to enjoy it, yet the depth and prose are remarkable to read and absorb.
Priscilla: Yes, exactly.
Bo: Overall thoughts; I’m a big fan. I’d be willing to read just about anything within this setting. It’s so beautifully thought out, makes perfect sense, is different than what I usually read from fantasy, and is filled with a thousand little stories that can blossom into their own novels.
Ian: It’s an easy, enjoyable read, and though it might easily fit into a YA category, it has a lot of complexity for such a short book. I got more out of it this time than any other time I’ve read it.
Bo: Ian said the next book features an entirely different main character, and that doesn’t worry me at all. It actually excited me more than following Ged again. He had his story, now I’m ready to see someone else’s.
Priscilla: For overall thoughts… I really loved the book, more than I expected to. It became an instant favorite of mine and possibly an influence too, for its beautiful prose and wonderful worldbuilding. I really loved Ged’s journey. The “women problem” is the only disappointing aspect, especially because it’s not an issue with this particular plot (I could understand if young Ged wasn’t acquainted with many girls) but with the setting. Still, I loved this book so much I wanna read the rest of the series (and it does help that I know the next book has a female protag).
Katie: Overall thoughts: a really fascinating fantasy story that pulls from ancient structures and tropes but creates a fresh new story in an interesting location. It’s psychologically and morally complex but also a fun, enjoyable read with beautiful writing.
Kori: And not superfluous, overly long march across a mountain/plain in sight.
Katie: I dunno Kori, there were LOTS of boat rides
Bo: What is the ocean but a vast, blue plain?
Kori: Yes, but that’s on water, and everyone knows giant krakens and other horrors are lurking and waiting to rip you apart and devour you. Never trust the ocean.
Katie: The plains have… sand worms? Tornadoes? Wind?
Katie: I like that dragons in fantasy novels are always kind of assholes.
Priscilla: Yes. And the Earthsea dragons remind me a lot of Tolkien’s dragons.
Bo: Dragons are like elves. Ageless and immortal and always sticking their stupid noses and pointy ears up at us.
Kori: WE ARE THE DRAGONS THOUGH, BO
Katie: We are mecha-assholes.
Bo: We’re mecha-dragons. We break down too often to be so snotty.
Kori: Okay, we’re gonna wrap it up. In short, read the book.
Priscilla: Totally recommended, 10/10, A+, but lacks women and nazguls.
Katie: Ian, give us some dragon noises to send us off!
Ian: *pleased dragon purring*
Bo: Oh no, he’s broken.