Monday, April 20, 2015

YA Guy Reviews... A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA by Ursula K. Le Guin!

What could YA Guy possibly say that hasn't already been said about the first book in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea series?

I mean, the book's a classic. It's been reviewed all over the place. There are nearly 700 reviews on Amazon alone. What's the point?

Well, stick around. I might surprise you.

I first read Le Guin's books when I was twelve years old, right around the time I started reading epic fantasy pretty much exclusively. I read Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Anne McCaffrey, you name it. (I also played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and watched a lot of fantasy films.) My first finished novel was a swords-and-sorcery tale very much in this vein. It was what I was into as a kid, and I ate the stuff up.

I'm not really into high fantasy anymore. I prefer science fiction. Maybe because I've gotten older (and more cynical?), I like my fantasy to be grounded in reality. The most recent epic fantasy novel I read, George R. R. Martin's interminable A Game of Thrones, was pure agony. I finished it, largely so I could say I'd read it, but I don't think I enjoyed one page of its eight hundred (or was it eight thousand?).

But lately, I've been reading novels with my son, who's almost twelve. He reads on his own, of course, but he also likes to read with me, so I've been pulling out some classics from the bookshelf and reading them to him before bedtime. Given his tastes, our reading inclines toward the fantasy books I used to read at his age. We've read The Hobbit, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door (which are basically fantasy or even allegory though they're billed as science fiction), and others. We just finished A Wizard of Earthsea and have started The Tombs of Atuan.

I found Wizard every bit as enjoyable as I did the first time I read it. I loved the world-building, the beauty of the language, the impeccable craft. But I also discovered something in the book I hadn't remembered.

In A Wizard of Earthsea, you may recall, the hero, wizard-in-training Ged, unleashes a monstrous shadow from the netherworld when one of his prideful spells goes awry. The book's pacing is pretty leisurely, with lots of time for exposition and character development, but it picks up steam once the shadow's released. From that point on, Ged's quest to confront the shadow drives the plot forward to a satisfying conclusion.

But here's the thing I didn't remember: the shadow has the ability to possess human beings, turning them into something Le Guin calls a "gebbeth." Here's her fullest description of this creature:

"The body of a gebbeth has been drained of true substance and is something like a shell or a vapor in the form of a man, an unreal flesh clothing the shadow which is real. So jerking and billowing as if blown on the wind the shadow spread its arms and came at Ged, trying to get hold of him as it had held him on Roke Knoll: and if it did it would cast aside the husk of Skiorh and enter into Ged, devouring him out from within, owning him, which was its whole desire."

When I read that passage, my mind jumped to my own novel, Survival Colony 9, and especially to its hero (Querry Genn) and monsters (the Skaldi). Can it be an accident that I too created a monster that devours human beings and travels in their hollowed skin? Can it be coincidence that the name "Genn" sounds an awful lot like "Ged," just as the word "Skaldi" sounds an awful lot like the name of the gebbeth "Skiorh"?

We authors try to be as original as we can, but we're always borrowing from what we've read. In my case, though I haven't read epic fantasy seriously for over thirty years, what I did read as a teen and pre-teen went into me so deeply that certain aspects of that reading--not only specific names and scenarios but the overall structure and pacing of the writing--were bound to come out in what I wrote. As I prepare to revise the sequel to Survival Colony 9, I'm sure I'll be doing the same thing: channeling what I've read into what I write, creating something neither wholly original nor wholly derivative.

So if I were to review A Wizard of Earthsea, I'd say this: it's so good it's gotten into my blood, my brain, and my pen. It's devoured me, though in the good way of great writing, not in the monstrous way of the gebbeth and Skaldi. One of these days, I hope someone can say the same thing about something of mine.

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