Review: Tehanu

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin
281 pages
Published by Simon & Schuster, 1990
Genre: Fantasy, fiction
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: The first three Earthsea books feel so complete, and this one fell a bit flat. Maybe someday I’ll revisit Tehanu, but it isn’t likely.

Reviewed by Pete

Spoiler-free review

Tehanu is the fourth book in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, written almost twenty years after the previous book, The Farthest Shore. While this still felt like Earthsea and the characters were as strong as ever, this story felt quiet compared to previous entries, in a way that I wasn’t totally grabbed by.

Tombs of Atuan managed to be a narrowly focused fantasy that worked because it built off of the previous book and had an intense climax. Tehanu lacked both of these. It had classic characters, settings, and themes, but it lacked momentum.

In Tehanu, Tenar is the protector of a girl named Therru who is scarred physically and emotionally. Protecting Therru from the men who hurt her, and from the general dangers of the world, is a constant task that Tenar works at tirelessly.

Much of this book is serious conversations between adults about Therru’s well-being. While the previous Earthsea books were dramatic and wise, this one simply felt serious and real. I think Le Guin set out to create a story that tackles hard-to-talk about social issues, and though she succeeds in this masterfully, I wasn’t able to enjoy this one. It felt stressful and grim, and (slight spoiler) there is an jarringly brutal torture scene that caught me off guard and made me feel a bit ill.

Tehanu is not a children’s book by any means—in fact, I don’t know if I’ll be able to truly appreciate it until I’m a parent. While I love when fantasy books try to create realistic, slice-of-life settings and plots, I don’t feel that this book was the right place for it, somehow. The main issue is that I went into this book with certain expectations — journeys, magic, and colorful cultures—and Ursula K. Le Guin had expectations and goals of her own.   

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