Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Book Review - Ursula K. Le Guin's The Other Wind

The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: 2001
Format: Paperback, 288 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

The balance has not yet been set right. After the Ring of Erreth-Akbe was once again made whole and the prophecy of a king placed on the throne came to pass it was assumed the world would right itself because of this change. Yet Lebannen has been king for half his life and yet the change isn't for the better. Lebannen has called for Tenar and Tehanu to come to give him counsel so Ged is alone on Gont when Alder arrives. Alder is a village sorcerer from Way who specializes in mending. He has been having horrible nightmares since his wife Lily died. He is on the other side of the wall from the dry land, the land of the dead. His wife is there on the other side calling to him. They even embraced across the wall and when Alder awoke he was scarred where his wife had touched him. The next night more dead were at the wall in his dreams including his mentor. Each night he goes to that wall and he sees the dead trying to break through, trying to destroy the barrier. At his wits end he went to the wizards on Roke who then sent him to Ged, who has been to that dry land. Ged listens to Alder's story and sends him on his way to his wife, Tenar, with a kitten and two questions.

Once at the seat of the king in Havnor Alder is but one problem among many sticky political situations, from an unwanted bride from the Kargs to rumors of dragons attacking the western islands. Soon the dragons attack Havnor and Tehanu helps to make a temporary peace. But Alder isn't shunted aside, far from it, Lebannen and his counselors listen closely to him and soon realize that his problem, the dragons, everything might be connected. A delegation is assembled representing all parties involved, from dragons to wizards to man, and they talk, and they listen, and they realize that the cycle of death has been somehow interrupted by the wizards building that wall in the dry land causing unrest. This unrest is becoming dangerous, especially to Alder who can hear the call of the dead even in his waking hours now, and the delegation decides decisive action must be taken. They set forth to Roke, the center of the world. They know not what they will do there or how they will accomplish what needs to be done but with all of them working together they must find a solution otherwise all Earthsea will perish.

The main thing I have always admired about Le Guin's Earthsea cycle is that there was an originality to it. Yes, there were references, pastiches of other series that came before, and in Lebannen's journey more than a nod to The Once and Future King. But while there were these building blocks, this DNA, what Le Guin created was something entirely new out of all that had come before. Until now. And I really am left a little at a loss for words. What she wrote over many decades was a new and unique story that ended much like every other fantasy series and in doing so fails the reader. It's just so derivative, and mainly it's derivative or Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series. I mean, there is no way around the fact that Lebannen basically assembles the Council of Elrond. Instead of men, hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, we have men (two different races), wizards (two different methods of training), sorcerers, and dragons. Dragons and Kargs and Kings oh my! Oh, and remember there's a ring. And they have there meeting in a secret grove and make decisions that will effect all of Middle-Earth, oops, I meant Earthsea. And in the end the dragons, the most mystical of all the beings, head into the west... so yeah. Not. Original.

Yet this lackluster finish doesn't discount the whole cycle, even Tolkien wasn't perfect, and Peter Jackson is even more fallible with those horrid Hobbit movies. Looking at the cycle as a whole I came to a very interesting realization. I looked at my favorite books, The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu, and the stories that most affected me in Tales from Earthsea, and they all had something in common. The writing I have loved the best is when Le Guin has her story set in a specific location. When she has her characters traveling hither and yon I don't feel the connection to them as I do when they are rooted. Le Guin is able to create such a deep connection to place in sustained narratives that when her stories aren't given this sense of place they flounder. The Tombs in The Tombs of Atuan become their own character, as does Re Albi in Tehanu. In fact when Alder visited Ged in Re Albi at the start of this book I was given momentary hope. Here I was at home. Here I was in Ogion's cabin which was made for his master. This place had become a part of me. I wanted to stay there, I wanted to abide. But perhaps that's just me. One of my friends jokes that I'm the only person she knows who wouldn't jump at the chance to travel with The Doctor because I love being home. I love my roots.

Where The Other Wind also stands out is how they figure out what is going on through the different lore. I love folklore and how it evolves over time and how it informs our cultural identity. All the different cultures had a similar take on a similar tale, from Pelnish lore to Kargish, all the way to the dragons, they all contain a grain of truth. By comparing and contrasting and combining they are able to find the essential truth, that which will help them. The Other Wind is basically an ode to comparative literature analysis. Hearing these stories and trying to work out the truth before it's revealed is a wonderful little puzzle. But as with many puzzles if not solved in a timely manner they outstay their welcome. After awhile the stories become repetitive and not just by their similarities but by the fact the characters are actually repeating themselves to work out how best to handle their situation. So while problem solving through storytelling really appeals to me I reached a point where I just wanted the problem solved. Le Guin belabored the point in what is ironically a very slim volume.

But what is once again a problem is the ending. I thought that Tales from Earthsea had worked out some of Le Guin's issues with endings, but if this book is any judge it just made it worse and took a bit of the spark with it. So the question I have is once the Council of Elrond has gotten to Roke and the Immanent Grove and passed over to the dry land how does breaking down the wall actually help? The wizards built the wall eons ago to capture immortality by creating nirvana. But once the wall was up the wind stopped blowing across the land that used to belong to the dragons and all died there and the dead were trapped, not in heaven but in a hell of their own making. So yes, there's no wall now, the trapped souls can escape, but the wall wasn't built consciously, or at least that's how Le Guin makes it seem. The wall was built because man dared use the language of the making and in giving people their true names they forced them into this dry eternity. So by still giving people their true names the wall will just be rebuilt. Therefore what actually needed to happen is that magic needed to be fully removed from the equation. But this doesn't happen. Le Guin always takes her stories right up to the end and then seems to lose interest and can't be bothered to see it through to it's logical conclusion by tying up the lose ends.

In fact she doesn't just illogically stop the imbalance, because seriously, I don't think it will work, she starts laying on all this new information in the final pages. So while this is supposedly the end she's laid so much new road down that it seems like the jumping off point for another six books. Ignoring the whole problematic continued existence of magic, we learn that dragons can supposedly go between worlds? WTF!?! Shouldn't we have known this before beyond Ged's cryptic question asking if dragons can go over the wall. So dragons just go here there and everywhere? So why exactly didn't they just take down the wall in the first place? Dragons are beings of magic and time and time again they are shown to be pretty equal to magicians and yet they let that wall stand? Yeah, not likely. But what really annoyed me is that I felt Tehanu's story was just forgotten. At the end of the forth book I needed to know her story but instead Le Guin gave it to Irian in "Dragonfly" in Tales from Earthsea. Irian took Tehanu's thunder! It's just, gaw. It's annoying. So much wonderful setup and so much disappointment in the follow through. Part of me wants more books so that the wrongs can be righted. But the other part of me just wants the journey over because I have a feeling that more questions would be raised than answered if another book existed.

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