Sunday, June 24, 2012
50. The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
On to the third book in the Earthsea trilogy. I enjoyed it, but I have to say it was kind of a disappointment. It's definitely my least favourite of the three and I hope that the other, later Earthsea writings can satisfy me more now. At first I thought it was just the unrelenting gloominess of this book, but looking back on it, I see that it also has some structural flaws that made it feel less rich than the first two.
The Farthest Shore takes place a decade or two after the Tombs of Atuan. At this point, Ged has become the Archmage of Roke. He is the most powerful wizard in the Earthsea and has a rich history of exploits (beyond the ones in the actual two books). Now, there is a darkness emanating from the outer reaches of the land. Wizards are reporting that they are losing their magic. A young prince from an important kingdom comes as a messenger and Ged takes this as an omen. He calls a council and decides to sail with the prince to find the source of the problem.
The first and second books both end with these dark, gloomy and trudging finales where Ged is challenged in a slow, draining way. In the first one, he and a wizard buddy sail way out to the edge of the world to find Ged's shadow. In the second one, Ged is trapped in the labyrinth, clinging to life while using all his magic to hold back the shadows there. These were dark and trying, but they were only at the end of the book. Almost the entirety of the Farthest Shore is this kind of quest. For me, it dragged. There was no joy in this book. The spectre of the end of magic is always a scary one for the fantasy reader. It almost felt like the magic was drained out of this book from the beginning. And though the ending, the darkness is vanquished and the magic restored, the reader doesn't get to experience any of the resurrection that should have followed. We don't get to go back into the rich, magical world of Earthsea that drew us in in the first place.
Worse than that, though, was a real lack of characterization with the prince. In the first two books, Ged and the princess are richly portrayed. The reader grows up with the character. Here, the prince comes ready made and you don't get much from him besides being a witness to Ged's struggle. And this guy turns out to be the one king who will return the single throne to Earthsea. Similarly, the antagonist is a minor character who is only initially referred to in a passing history of Ged in an incident that takes place after the first two books. It just doesn't have a lot of weight. At least for me it didn't.
The worlds they visit are evocative and cool and the underworld quest they go on was compelling such that again I was hard-pressed to not keep reading. But it just didn't give me a lot of pleasure. I felt denied! I know there is at least one other book and several short stories that take place in Earthsea, so I'll reserve my hope for more of the magic of Earthsea in those books.