This book is the sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea, and it is di fferent in some important respects. First, it is about a female — Le Guin says, in the Afterword to the edition I read, that this was her third novel, and she hadn’t written a female protagonist yet. Second, it has a stable setting. In the former, Sparrowhawk goes through much of Earthsea, giving a sort of ‘Quest’ narrative that also establishes the world. In this book, the girl once named Tenar stays in one place almost the entire story. Third, the Kargites amongst whom the narrative mostly takes place are suspicious of magic, whereas the people of Sparrowhawk’s culture are regular users.
Like its predecessor, this is a story of becoming, of ‘coming of age’ as they say. It is about the high priestess of the Nameless Ones — ancient, malevolent Powers whose cultural heyday is past but who are very real nonetheless. This priestess herself is nameless, having had her name eaten in a ceremony at six years of age. Here we see the violent, scarred edge of religion. It is a potent force of existence throughout the novel.
This priestess has her world of women and eunuchs and the Powers challenged by the appearance of a man, a sorcerer, a wizard, in the vast labyrinth of dread beneath the temple precinct. She had thought the Nameless Ones would have destroyed him. He had come seeking an object of power left by another wizard long ago. Her duty as priestess is to kill him, but she cannot bring herself to do it.
In the end, priestess and wizard rely on each other to survive. Here is a great lesson. Le Guin notes that some criticised her, saying that the lesson of the novel is that women cannot do anything without men. That is not the lesson, for Sparrowhawk needs Tenar as much as she needs him. The lesson is that both sexes need each other.
Myself, I did not think on gender dynamics at all. Obviously, Sparrowhawk relies on Tenar for his survival. But my view of his relationship to her where she relies on him as well struck me more as that of wise sage and young person on the cusp of personal discovery, in quest of true wisdom. Obi-Wan Kenobi, I guess?
Anyway, this is possibly too vague a review because I’m trying not to give away too much of the plot. Trust me, though. This is a good sequel. I have put The Farthest Shore on hold at the library.