I'm not sure when Ursula Le Guin became my favorite author, but I've been reading her work for over forty years . When she died recently, I thought about how much her work had meant to me as a reader and a sometime writer. So I went back to the beginning and read "A Wizard of Earthsea" again for the umpteenth time. As expected, it was still a pleasure.
So - in the interest of full disclosure, this is not a book review. This is me telling you why you should read A Wizard of Earthsea. Think of it as a book recommendation from your cranky uncle.
I read A Wizard of Earthsea for the first time in my early teens. I had just finished reading The Lord of the Rings, and I was looking for another world to escape into. There was a dragon on the cover and the word "Wizard" was in the title. It was a slim volume, and I'm a fast reader. I thought I'd devour it in a weekend, and move on to the next world. I did finish it quickly, but kept coming back to it over the next forty years or so. This book (and the Earthsea books that followed) stayed with me. But unlike a lot of other stuff I read at that age (Michael Moorcock's Elric Books come to mind) it has held up to repeated reading well into (ahem) late middle age.
What I didn't know then was that Ursula Le Guin was a great writer. Not just really good. GREAT. Her use of language, is rich, uncluttered and beautiful. There is a solidity to her world of Earthsea. You can feel the ground beneath your feet and experience wildness of the sea when you travel with Ged, Le Guin's protagonist. Her characters are described in a few words, and many of them don't say much, but they feel real. If you're a writer, I dare say that you could learn a thing or two from her wise, clear prose.
The plot is straightforward. It's the story of a young wizard named Ged as he learns to use his powers, and figures out how to overcome the consequences of pride and foolishness. It's a coming of age story and (in the second half of the book) a quest. But there's a lot going on beneath the surface. There is talk of equilibrium and balance. Le Guin hints at Eastern philosophy. There is wisdom, and kindness, danger and cruelty, but this story isn't about good vs evil. There are some very bad people, and even some dragons, but there is no Dark Lord, and no hordes of Orcs. It's about the protagonist, a young wizard named Ged who makes some very big mistakes, and has to figure out how to fix them.
So anyways, read this book for the language, and for the thrill of discovering Earthsea. Try to figure out why you can smell the sea and feel the water rushing beneath the hull of Ged's boat "Lookfar", when she doesn't describe those details explicitly.
If you're twelve or thirteen, read it and enjoy the story and think about the questions it raises.
If you're an adult and haven't read it in a couple of decades, pick it up and discover that isn't a Young Adult book at all. Read it slowly if you can. Savor it. Than read all the rest of the Earthsea books.
And let me know what you think.