Author Topic: Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan  (Read 3896 times)

BeerDrinkingBurke

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Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan
« on: July 21, 2023, 01:23:06 PM »
Hello all. Here's my next Earthsea review. ;-)
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As with my review of A Wizard of Earthsea, I will dispense with any plot synopsis and try instead to mention a few things I found so striking about this work.
I didn't finally read Earthsea until this year, when I purchased the first four books as a single volume. Given my previous experience with fantasy, my expectation after finishing The Wizard of Earthsea was that the next book would be, more or less, a continuation. A "sequel" where Ged would be the central protagonist yet again. After all, when I started to actively read fantasy novels in the early 90s, the genre was already well into the era of sprawling sagas. I imagine that if you wanted to get your first fantasy book published at that time, the pressure was on to pitch it as "Book One of the X Trilogy". Publishers were looking for the next Feast, or Eddings, or Jordan. You'd establish a world, and some large narrative arc, get the readers invested, and then keep them coming back for more.

So it was delightful to have this expectation upended. The first few Earthsea books were written before that fantasy trend really became established. Le Guin is -revisiting- Earthsea to tell another tale told in that world. But with fresh ideas. A fresh perspective. Ged is still an important secondary character, but he does not appear until we are already a third(!) of the way into the book. And he is much older. Many important events in the world have occurred in between these two books, and this is left to our imagination. Again Le Guin is very restrained with doling out background lore. She is content to show us glimpses of a wider world, just enough necessary background to help the foreground of this particular story to stand in relief.

And what a story it is. Like Wizard, Tombs is also a book aimed at older children and young adults. So it makes sense that, like Ged, our new protagonist, the High Priestess Arha (the Eaten One), is a young person who is undergoing her own journey into adulthood. And again, like Ged, the struggle that Arha must overcome is a kind of figurative darkness. Again, our protagonist must learn to change their mind in order to overcome that darkness. The difference is that while Ged's darkness was something unleashed by his own pride and spite, Arha's darkness was instilled in her. Rendered internal by ancient forces of power and domination. Where Wizard is Taoist, perhaps Jungian, Tombs is a step towards a more political, feminist thesis, about power, about ideology, about belief.

Throughout Tombs, Le Guin shows herself to be the master of pacing. A lot of reviewers have commented on having a hard time at first with the opening of the book, which struck them as too slow (I didn't have this problem myself). Yet once they reached the middle, and the plot shifts gear, they realize that this seemingly slow start was actually essential. The impact of the second two thirds derives so much from the initial portrayal of Arha and her life.

I want to add that the tombs themselves are a wonderfully evocative setting for the story. A maze of passages that must be traversed without light, purely by using ones sense of touch. The slowly building dread reaches a superb crescendo at the very end.

Finally, I was yet again left quite agape at the quality of Le Guin's prose. Particularly at the very end of the book, which was extraordinarily beautiful. Rather than simply bringing the story to a quick conclusion after the final major challenge has been overcome, the story lingers a while with Arha and Ged. We are treated to vivid descriptions of the landscape that they traverse, which meld together with sparse conversation and thoughts to show a kind of re-establishment of perspective for Arha, who must now dare to begin her life again. What must that feel like? What would that mean? Le Guin really wants to explore these kinds of weighty themes by means of the narrative arc, rather than the themes acting as mere set dressing for the dramatic tension of surmounting a challenge.

After being seriously impressed by A Wizard of Earthsea, I was quite amazed to find that I enjoyed Tombs even more. It is easily one of the best books in the genre ever written.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/5708770274
« Last Edit: July 21, 2023, 02:05:18 PM by Jubal »
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Jubal

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Re: Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan
« Reply #1 on: July 21, 2023, 02:09:22 PM »
Admin note: I added a link to your previous review for people's convenience, hope that's OK :)

I have very little memory of Tombs of Atuan except for The Vibes Of The Thing, which have definitely sat with me since I read it even though it's so long that not much of the plot has remained. You're right: that sense of the tombs and their feeling as a place is really powerful in how evocative it is. These reviews are definitely making me start to contemplate a re-read for the full original Quartet (I think it's a Quartet, right? Wizard/Tombs/Shore/Tehanu).

Have you read Lud-in-the-Mist? That's interesting for the thing you mention here of a book doing very different things because the genre conventions just weren't there yet to tell anyone not to. And it's a fascinatingly weird book in general that I think you'd find interesting.
The duke, the wanderer, the philosopher, the mariner, the warrior, the strategist, the storyteller, the wizard, the wayfarer...

BeerDrinkingBurke

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Re: Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan
« Reply #2 on: July 21, 2023, 03:16:59 PM »
No I haven't even heard of  Lud-in-the-Mist! Thanks for the recommendation. ;-)
I have 4 books in my volume, which was originally called the Quartet. I understand there were two more Earthsea books published tho in 2001, Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind.
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