Saturday, May 2, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan

Book Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Ratings: 4 out of 5 Stars

The Farthest Shore

Book Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Both books are solid fantasy entries by Le Guin that expand on the Earthsea setting, though they don't quite attain the classic status of A Wizard of Earthsea.

The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore are the second and third books of the Earthsea Trilogy written by Ursula K. Le Guin in the late 60’s / early 70’s (she would later carry on the story starting with Tehanu in 1990).  Interestingly, this trilogy is very much a precursor to the Young Adult trend that has become all the rage the last decade or so as each of Le Guin's book focuses on a youthful character and delivers a coming of age story.  The first book in the trilogy, A Wizard of Earthsea, tells the story of a boy who becomes the apprentice to a mage and goes on to become a great wizard himself known as Sparrowhawk (and also by his true name of Ged).  That one ranks as one of my all-time favorite fantasy books and you can see my previous review of it at this link.  In the two subsequent books of the initial trilogy, Sparrowhawk becomes a supporting character who plays a crucial role in the coming of age of each of the new characters.


In The Tombs of Atuan, we are introduced to a girl who has been chosen to assume the position of the high priestess of the “Nameless Ones” because she was born on the same night that the previous priestess died (thus they believe that her immortal soul passed into its next body).  She is given the name Arha (meaning the “Eaten One” because she has been "consumed" by the Nameless Ones) and subjected to the rigid teachings and rituals of her order.  The gods she serves are dark ones and the Kargish empire the temple is part of is a warlike nation.  Arha is not bothered by this at first because she was brought up to believe in these ways, but as she matures she finds her life unsatisfying.  But one day a certain wizard attempts to infiltrate the labrynthe beneath the tombs and sets a sequence of events into place that eventually change the path that Arha has been forced upon.

In The Farthest Shore, Arren--the prince of Enland--comes to the island of Roke seeking the help of the mages to stave off a darkness that has begun to descend upon his lands.  He comes in contact with Sparrowhawk who is impressed by this boy on the cusp of manhood and agrees to help him seek out the source of this darkness that threatens the lands.  They travel--as the title suggests--to the farthest shores of Earthsea and confront a wizard who succumbed to the ambitions that nearly destroyed Sparrowhawk when he was young and first learning the extent of his magical powers.  This leads to a final confrontation that will decide the fate of all Earthsea and also provides a closure to Sparrowhawk's story arc that began with the first tale.

Both of these books are solid fantasy entries that expand on the Earthsea setting Le Guin first crafted in A Wizard of Earthsea.  The world is so named because it is comprised of many islands populated by a diverse selection of people, some possessing strong magical powers and some who have shunned magic and prefer the ways of war.  Each of the books builds upon the events of the other (beginning with the first) and each presents its own coming of age story for its focal character (first Sparrowhawk, then Arha, then Arren).  Though they are not so closely linked together that they could not work as standalone novels (but after you have read one, you will find yourself drawn into this world and will want to read more).  As I mentioned above, the first book is an all-time favorite of mine and I would argue that it deserves a place in the Top 5 best fantasy books (and at least Top 25 best sci fi / fantasy).  The second and third books of the trilogy don’t quite attain that status, but they are solid fantasy works.  In The Tombs of Atuan, I really wish Le Guin had developed Arha’s character better and built up to her sudden change of heart.  But it’s not anything that derailed the story and when I get around to Tehanu maybe I will find what I was looking for there.  I like The Farthest Shore better, but it never rose to the classic that A Wizard of Earthsea delivered.  But if you have read the first one (and you should read that one), by all means continue with the next two.  You will not be disappointed.

As for the audiobook versions, they are given excellent treatment by Rob Inglis (he also voiced A Wizard of Earthsea, but I listened to the version by Harlan Ellison).  Inglis ushered me through the audiobook versions of The Lord of the Rings (more on those at this link) and The Hobbit and did a first-rate job on all four of those books.  I have to admit, though. that I had struggled with his voice work on the Le Guin books at first as I kept drifting back to Middle Earth because I had become so accustomed to Inglis bringing that world to life.  Also, his somber and steady delivery is so far from the impassioned, frenetic reading that Ellison did for the first book that it is quite a different experience.  But I can’t fault Inglis for his familiarity or for not being Ellison and I have to admit that he is an excellent choice as narrator for these books.  Unfortunately, the audiobook version of A Wizard of Earthsea performed by Ellison is no longer readily available, but Inglis’ reading will surely suffice.  I highly recommend this entire trilogy and plan on catching up with the later Earthsea books (which I never got around to reading) at some point in the near future.

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