The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. Le Guin
Atheneum Books (Simon & Schuster) 1971
Genre: Fiction, fantasy
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: This book solidified Earthsea as a series that I will revisit someday.
The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle.
The first thirty pages of The Tombs of Atuan bear little resemblance to A Wizard of Earthsea—in fact, the book as a whole is different in its pace, setting, and cast of characters. Yet it is without a doubt a sequel, as many connections to the first book are made toward the end.
But it made me wonder what it must have been like to wait for the next book in a series in the 60s and 70s. My copy of The Tombs of Atuan was, strangely, a first edition first printing from my local library. Nothing on the spine says that it’s a part of The Earthsea Cycle, nor that it’s a part of a series at all. The jacket flap reads “The Tombs of Atuan is set in the same geographical region of the world of fantasy as her previous book for young people, A Wizard of Earthsea.” Without the Internet and without the strategic marketing of series of today, how often did readers miss out on the next book in a series because they didn’t know it was out or didn’t recognize it?
What a dark time it must have been.
The Tombs of Atuan is set in an ancient temple and follows a young priestess named Arha. Since she was taken into the Place of the Tombs as a young child, her life has been one of piety, sacrifice, and isolation. When a mysterious and powerful wizard appears in the depths of the Labyrinth, Arha must choose between a life in the temple or a life in the outside world.
Sometimes I like my sequels to be more of the same, and sometimes I like them to be something entirely new. The Tombs of Atuan was the latter, sharing very little with the first Earthsea book. But its few connections are satisfying morsels that reward the reader for paying close attention. It is just enough of a sequel to create a link with the stories from the first book, but it could stand on its own very well.
There is a certain cozy feeling that I get when reading the Earthsea books. Le Guin is a master of the “legendary” voice, and her writing never comes off as lofty or self-important. There is something about holding an Earthsea book and taking in its illustrations and brilliant descriptive passages that makes it feel like a magical ancient text.
Reviewed by Pete