Tag Archives: ursula k le guin

Books ‘normal’ people read

I am on parental leave following the birth of my second son just now. It is leave from my paid work, but it is work! Between the PhD and then four academic jobs in four years, all the while hunting for more academic work, my mind is a bit tired. So, while I’m on parental leave, I’ve decided to read books ‘normal’ people read.

This definition of my current reading has, however, been challenged! After reviewing Anne of Windy Poplars, I was told by one friend on Facebook that her sister read all the Anne books, and no one in that family could be considered normal (fair enough). I was also told that no normal people read the later Anne books.

I did a bit of research on this second challenge, asking Canadian females on Facebook how many of Montgomery’s Anne novels they had read. I received 21 responses from Canadians, 14 of whom had read them all, and of whom only 2 had read zero. One had read only one, one was unsure, and two didn’t specify how many. Somehow that only adds up to 20. Anyway, it seems that Canadian females with whom I am Facebook friends have read the later Anne books, by and large.

I polled the men and got five responses, of which three were zero (one was ‘A hard zero’), one had read them all, and a fifth had read the first. Canadian men read less L M Montgomery than the women.

But are my Facebook friends normal? This is harder to say. This is a band of people that includes my relatives, after all. And academics and artists and a vlogger and other people who would be proud of not being ‘normal’.

Besides having read two Anne novels (look for a review of Anne’s House of Dreams soon!), I’ve also read the first two Earthsea books — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan — besides an entertaining, short novel by Red Deer novelist Sigmund Brouwer called The Leper. Do normal people read these books?

I don’t know.

I suspect that ‘normal’ people read novels by Danielle Steele, Nicholas Sparks, Jeffrey Archer, John Grisham, or self-improvement books and parenting books and books about how to make money. I have read some parenting books, myself, at least.

So what do I mean why I say that I am reading books ‘normal’ people read?

I mean I am not reading ancient books, medieval books, academic books about ancient or medieval topics, or academic theology. That part of my brain, which never necessarily turns off, needs a bit of a rest, and I have the chance to give it one, hoping for more verve when I’m back in the office in mid-July.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan (Earthsea Cycle, #2)The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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.

View all my reviews

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin (a quick review)

A Wizard of Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #1)A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book drew me in early on and then gripped and seized me until I was done. It follows the early life of the wizard Sparrowhawk (one does not utter a wizard’s true name lightly), briefly recounting his childhood and then more time on his training, and then the dire quest that sets him forth through much of the Archipelago of Earthsea. This quest is his alone, for he himself unleashed a darkness that he alone can vanquish. Unlike so much high fantasy, this darkness will not destroy the earth. If Sparrowhawk fails, there will be terrible consequences, but the world will not be consumed in fire or flood. Part of what makes the quest aspect of the second half appealing is the fact that Sparrowhawk does not necessarily know where he is meant to go.

So much for an unrevealing plot synopsis. I like the book too much to spoil the plot for the curious!

I am enamoured of Le Guin’s style in this book. From the first it reads like a folktale. You feel like you are sitting around a fire listening to someone tell you the story. It is beguiling.

I also like the way magic works here. It requires power on the part of the mage, but also knowledge of the true name of something. Names bear power in Earthsea.

You also get a sense of there being different cultures throughout the Archipelago as well as ethnicities. Moreover, I think this is a technologically bronze age fantasy. Pretty rare. Most are thoroughly faux-mediaeval.

I look forward to The Tombs of Atuan.

View all my reviews