A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
Published By: Bantam Books (originally published by Parnassus, 1968)
Genre: Fiction, fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Rereadability: I will be revisiting this book again and again.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea is a classic fantasy tale that feels surprisingly fresh. It tells a large story without being epic or sprawling. It is short, simple, and brilliant.
The story follows a young wizard named Ged from his childhood as a fledgeling sorcerer to his early adulthood. Le Guin tells us that Ged will one day go on great adventures and become an incredible wizard, but she warns that this is not that story. It is the story of a man finding out who he is in the a world of thousands of islands, a variety of cultures and people, and powerful magic.
When Ged learns that he has magical abilities, he leaves his home island of Gont for the School for wizards. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you’ve probably encountered a handful of wizarding schools—Hogwarts, Brakebills from The Magicians, and The University from The Name of the Wind come to mind.
The School comes with many familiar elements: a teacher for each of the magic forms, the snobby rival. During his time at the school, Ged brings an evil being into the world while attempting to outdo his rival with a complex spell. Ged’s creation—the Shadow—becomes the antagonist of the story.
For a sub-200-page book, A Wizard of Earthsea packs years’ worth of events into a very small space. Every chapter is an adventure of its own.
I have had a rough streak of fantasy book lately. Nothing was really clicking for me. I went into this book apprehensively, expecting it to feel outdated, overdone, and possibly a bit dry.
Instead, Le Guin inverts expectations from the start, writing a fantasy not about saving the world but about a wizard saving himself and coming to terms with his own dark side.
The book may not have a breakneck plot or intense action, but it has magic in every moment and a world that feels both plausible and alien.
It didn’t take very long for me to understand why this is considered one of the classics of fantasy. As I read, I noticed connections to Rothfuss, Hobb, and Gaiman. Though the book was originally compared to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea is a unique story in a unique setting.
I won’t tell you that you have to read this book. But if you read it, you will understand why it has been celebrated for so long, and you will understand where many contemporary fantasy books got their inspiration. A Wizard of Earthsea is a book to read under an old, shady tree—or a book to read on a subway or in a hospital. Either way, it will take you into another world.
Reviewed by Pete