Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my all-time favourite authors. She is also one of the writers who has influenced my own writing the most. I read the first three books in her Earthsea Cycle as a teenager, and at the time, these books gripped me and shook me to my core like few other books I’ve read. The power of her stories, her writing style, her language, and her unique storytelling voice all made a huge impression on me. The Tombs of Atuan in particular is a book that moved me so deeply that I believe it has become a part of my own “writing DNA”.
While the original trilogy of Earthsea books – A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore – were published in 1968-1972, Tales From Earthsea was published in 2001 – so it is a much more recent addition to the Earthsea Cycle, just like the novels Tehanu (published in 1990) and The Other Wind (also published in 2001).
In these short stories, Le Guin re-visits and expands her vision of the world and the history of Earthsea, and she also delves deeper into its lore and its magic. The original trilogy took place in a time when the majority of the people of Earthsea saw magic as something only men could (and should) do: “Weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic”, as the saying goes in the stories. However, in Tales From Earthsea it is revealed that women once wielded magic powers that rivaled the men’s, and that both women and men founded the magic school on the island of Roke – a crucial center of power that later allows only men to be educated as wizards.
As you’d expect from one of the best fantasy writers in the world, Tales From Earthsea is an outstanding collection of short stories. Le Guin’s language is as beautiful as ever; her stories are captivating from the first word and sentence; and the characters are just as strong and alive as they are in her novels. Two of the things that have always appealed to me in Le Guin’s work are her lack of sentimentality, and her reluctance to create characters that are either simply good or simply evil. Instead, the characters in her stories are flawed and damaged and often difficult people to deal with, and that is why they feel so real, and close, and true.
If you’ve read the other Earthsea books, Tales From Earthsea is a bit like returning to a favourite place: you get to re-visit familiar places and events, while Le Guin gives you a new perspective on, and new insight into, the vivid world she’s created.
In ‘The Finder’ Le Guin tells the story of how the school of magic was established on Roke island; while ‘Darkrose and Diamond’ is a tale about a troubled romance between the daughter of a witch and the son of a merchant. ‘The Bones of the Earth’ (one of my favourites in this collection) is the true story of how the legendary wizard Ogion the Silent handled a massive earthquake – a part of Earthsea-lore that hearkens back to the first books.
‘On the High Marsh’ is vintage Le Guin: a beautiful tale with a hidden darkness at its core, about a mysterious healer haunted by a past he can’t remember, and what happens when he arrives in a remote village where the livestock are dying.
For me, the standout story in the book is ‘Dragonfly’. The main character in this short story is a woman named Irian who is driven by a fierce need and yearning to find out what her true destiny is. And in order to find the answers she seeks, Irian tries to enter the Wizard-island of Roke even though women are strictly forbidden there. It’s a fantastic story in its own right, and it also ties together the final two Earthsea novels: Tehanu and The Other Wind.
I highly recommend this book, and all the other Earthsea books, for any and all fans of fantasy. Besides being a queen of both fantasy and science fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin is also one of the finest authors working in the world today. I truly believe that if she wrote “regular fiction” rather than sci-fi and fantasy, she would be considered for the Nobel Prize. Because yes, she is that good.
- Read an excerpt from ‘Dragonfly’ at Le Guin’s official website.
- Get Tales from Earthsea from Amazon.