Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin

To read The Tombs of Atuan, you might not realize that this is the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle (of course, it does help that it says so on the book cover). Only halfway into the book is it clear, when the hero from the original book, Ged, shows up. The Tombs of Atuan introduces a new character who is just as compelling as Ged was in A Wizard of Earthsea. Le Guin also uses her fantasy platform to make a comment on women's place in the world, as her main character, Arha, has power, but it's much more symbolic than real. The Tombs of Atuan may not be as compelling as A Wizard of Earthsea, but its story nonetheless has plenty of great moments and the novel furthers the story and world-building of the Earthsea Cycle.

As a reminder about some key information from A Wizard of Earthsea, it is in true names that wizards find their power. However, there is a powerful force that can overcome the power of wizards because it has no name. These are the Nameless Ones, and those who live on the island of Atuan, where the Nameless Ones reside, serve them. This is where Arha comes in. Her true name, as Ged later reveals, is Tenar, but she is known as Arha because she is the reincarnation of the Arch-Priestess of Atuan. When the Arch-Priestess dies, those in the service of the Nameless Ones seek out a girl born on the same day of her death and this girl is raised to become her replacement, as she is seen as her reincarnated form. Arha means "The Eaten One," which represents what happens to the soul of the Arch-Priestess.

Arha, however, is not quite as obedient as the Nameless Ones' servants would like. She is full of questions and curiosities and seems much more eager to learn about her station and her domain than her own teachers. These teachers are Thar and Kossil, two high priestesses who are older and supposedly wiser, but have less power. Or so it seems. Arha learns some truths. Though she basks in her own power, she learns there are limitations. For one, the god-king who rules the islands is, technically, below her in stature. But in reality, the god-king would not follow her commands. Also, the Arch-Priestess is easily replaced due to the fact she reincarnates as another, perhaps more malleable, girl. The high priestess, Kossil, seems to despise Arha, and Arha soon feels there is more danger in her angering Kossil than in Kossil angering Arha.

Ged, who hides his true name behind his identity as Sparrowhawk, enters the Tombs of Atuan to rob them. These Tombs are where the Nameless Ones reside. The Tombs themselves are dark and no light is allowed. They contain the entrance to the prison, where prisoners are sacrificed to the Nameless Ones, as well as the Labyrinth, which contains treasure. Arha discovers Ged only because she visits the Tombs and the Labyrinth so frequently as a place of refuge. She realizes right away that Ged is a wizard. Wizards are hated by those on the island, especially Kossil. They are said to be full of deceit and lies. In the treasury of the Labyrinth is an artifact, half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. This is what Ged seeks when Arha traps him in the Labyrinth. Instead of killing him, as she should, she keeps him alive because she is curious and because she also seems to revel in her power over him.

The Tombs of Atuan begins slowly before Arha transforms the story into something compelling. Watching her grow as an arrogant, rebellious-minded youth and respond to her situation makes for an entertaining read, and the world-building is intriguing as well. When Ged appears, halfway into the book, the story gets even better, as we watch Arha struggling to avoid doing the evil thing her faith requires of her. She keeps Ged alive and trapped because she wants to know more about the world, and Ged seems to see some goodness in her.

This book focuses largely on the development of Arha rather than the continuation of Ged's storyline. It's interesting to see the same Ged who in the last book became a powerful being, and who we know will become the world's most powerful wizard, reduced to powerlessness in this book. This allows the book to focus on Arha's development instead of Ged's, but it also shows us how even the most powerful of beings can be humbled and made human. That said, this book just does not stand up to the original. The original had very memorable moments of power and character growth. There are no earth-shattering moments in this book to match those in the original, and the climax comes too early, with the last two chapters serving largely as an epilogue of sorts. I do enjoy the series so far, but I have to admit that I'm not sure it has aged well. In today's fantasy/sci-fi climate, readers do enjoy the political side of world-building, but they also like action, and in that regard this book does not deliver. It requires patience, and if you have the patience you will find this an enjoyable read.

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