Friday, April 14, 2017

Book Review - Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: 1972
Format: Hardcover, 422 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Arren, the young Prince of Enland has come to the island of Roke to speak to the Archmage. He has been sent by his father, who is a wizardly man, to tell the Archmage that magic is dying, Earthsea is in danger. There is a sickness throughout the land, a malaise. Crops won't grow, spells are forgotten, and yet people don't care. On Roke they are ignorant of these changes in Earthsea, being protected by their magics. The Archmage, Sparrowhawk, sees the danger and vows to discover the source. Having grown up hearing the exploits of this great man Arren offers himself as his traveling companion. His sword. It is Arren's greatest desire in life to go on an adventure with his hero, though little does he know that adventures might sound wondrous in song, but are often arduous journeys where your survival is often a question. They leave Roke in Lookfar, sailing to Hort Town. A wizard there, while almost killing them, provides the first clues to the sickness. There is a wizard whose malign influence is tainting the world, trying to upset the balance between life and death. Earthsea depends on this balance, by shifting to the dark the will to live is draining out of the world. The two travelers see this again in Lorbanery, famous for dying silk, but they dye silk no more. Soon the malaise starts to effect Arren and Sparrowhawk almost dies because of his apathy. Yet they are spared once again and the dragons lead them to the final battle between good and evil. Will good triumph and an old prophecy be fulfilled? Or will evil win and strand the two adventurers in the land of the dead?

After how deeply I connected to the second book in this series, The Tombs of Atuan, there was almost no way that the third volume could spark that kind of devotion. But I was willing to have an open mind. Because the truth is, I was wary about The Tombs of Atuan and then it eventually not only sucked me in but won me over. So heading into The Farthest Shore my mind was open, I was ready for the next adventure of Ged and well... I was left cold. Like I was dumped out of Lookfar in some remote inlet and just left there. There were many reasons for this disconnect, the time jump, the earnest Arren, the meager plot, the truth is The Farthest Shore just didn't feel substantial enough when compared to the previous two volumes. I mean they are on land for little if any of the book, not that I'm saying a book set on a boat is boring, just this book set on a boat. Because when they're in the boat they just sit there. Occasionally move from one end to the other, there's the random swimming, oh, and the boring food that at least sustains them... so the whole book is on a boring boat, where not much is happening, they land, there's an angry mob, yell, yell, shout, attack, attack, back in the boat, sail some more, land again, oh look the evil ennui is here too, shout, attack, flee to boat, repeat again and again, until the lassitude infects Arren and he sits in the boat watching Ged die. Yeah, this is one happy book!

The flaw of the book is that Ged isn't the hero. Yes, he wasn't the hero in The Tombs of Atuan, but at least there he felt integral to Tenar's journey, here... here he's just an old man that doesn't really do much and the burden is shifted to the slight shoulders of Arren. When you look at Arren's arc as a whole from naive youth to the future king that will reunite all of Earthsea, it makes you not so hasty to judge him. But this is knowledge obtained after you've read the entire book, so for most of the book you're stuck with the trouble of Arren. Arren is just too naive and his hero worshiping of Ged, it's too much. He's a sycophant. He makes Beatlemania seem tame. It's actually nauseating. Heck, I'm not anti Ged, it's just, because of the timelapse, well, we don't know ALL of his adventures, unlike Arren who probably had a scribe laboriously write them out and have them bound in the finest calfskin. Logically I know that Le Guin wrote Arren to this extreme to contrast with his late apathy of Ged in the boat dying of a spear wound, to show how deep the sickness that has gripped Earthsea really goes, but still. Just no. There's just something about this blind optimism for adventure that is just too naive for me, especially considering how much danger and hate they encounter along the way.

Of course if there was still a connection between the reader and Ged then perhaps Arren's fanaticism could have been overlooked, but there's just too much time between the previous volume and this one. We saw Ged become a wizard and overcome a dark shadow and reunite the halves of the ring of Erreth-akbe but as we learn in Tehanu, that was twenty-five years previously, despite there only being two years between the publication of The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. During that time Ged must have had countless adventures, all known by heart by Arren, but unknown to the readers. We join him as Archmage of Roke, and we no longer know him. He's a stranger. This forces the narrative onto Arren's shoulders, and as I've already said, this doesn't work. Ged was who we started this journey with and it should be through him that we "finish" this journey. Instead he's enigmatic, remote, withdrawn, nothing like what we've seen before. Yes, having already started reading Tehanu I know the whys and wherefores, but the problem with Le Guin's series is that sometimes she is willing to sacrifice aspects of the current story in order to serve the overall story. While this is the way successful series are built, I still want each volume to work on it's own. I want each part of the story to be satisfying, not a placeholder to get to the next arc.

But the other thing I have to wonder is how long does it take to set Earthsea to rights? Because at the end of The Tombs of Atuan the two halves of the ring of Erreth-akbe were reunited and therefore peace was to be restored to Earthsea with the ascension of the rightful king. Um... it's been twenty-five years, literally almost a generation and things have just gotten worse and worse. I know it takes awhile to jump start the whole fixing a world but a generation!?! As I said, having jumped to the next story there are hints at other reasons this is happening, but just for the here and now, well, it's sad and depressing. This great victory for good and Ged and yet he goes off to be Archmage and shuts himself off from the world thinking what, that the world would just right itself? That his work was done and it was time to train up a new generation of wizards? Not only does it seem unfeasible, but it seems wrong of Ged. He literally turned his back on the world and now everything is shit. In fact when it's revealed that Ged knew the dark wizard who was behind the unbalancing of Earthsea, don't you think if he had stayed a little more connected, a little more invested with seeing through this peace he hoped to bring about that all this wouldn't have happened? Just saying, Ged, you dropped the ball and you SO don't deserve the worship of Arren.

Though in the end it was the magic leaving the world and the lassitude taking over Earthsea that made the book lackluster. Because that malaise permeated every page of this book and literally made me not want to pick it up. Whereas I devoured the first two books literally in a couple of days, it almost took me a week to struggle through until I reached the farthest shore. The ennui became a part of me. Perhaps I should tip my hat and say that Le Guin is such a successful writer she made the pervasive mood of the book literally jump off the page and into my life, but that doesn't take into account my desire to just set this book aside and never bother finishing it. If Arren can sit by and watch Ged die, why do I have to sit by and read about it? Why don't I move onto something a little more upbeat, a little less, everyone is going to die and we don't really care one jot. Or I could just sit in this chair and stare at the wall. Walls are nice. Walls are restful. Yes, I might have read this book in the middle of an illness, but I read the other two in the exact same condition. It's rare when I think sleep is the better option than reading. In fact choosing sleep over reading is usually detrimental to my mental health, needing a little escape before bed, but I would totally choose a nice nap over ever having to read this book again.


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