Saturday, September 15, 2012

Review of "The Other Wind" by Ursula Le Guin

At age 82, it’s safe to say (I think) that Ursula Le Guin will not be publishing additional books in the Earthsea Cycle.  Though this has been said before, the qualities of the last book to be published, The Other Wind, particularly the subtle and cathartic value of its denouement and the state in which the main characters are left, make the extension of the Cycle beyond six books unlikely.  Walking away on a high note, the Cycle is concluded in grand style.

Unlike the personal storylines of the original trilogy, The Other Wind sees the continuation of the pattern established by Tehanu and Tales from Earthsea: groups of characters take center stage rather than individuals.  All of the characters who have appeared in previous novels are drawn together.  Their purpose: to eradicate the larger ills plaguing the archipelago.  The dragons are uneasy and are disappearing to the west amidst internecine violence.  The dead in the dry land haunt the living in their dreams, begging for release.  And political tension are rising as the Kargish have sent a princess to Hardic lands with the intent of marrying her into the fold, uniting two old enemies.  

Le Guin resolving matters as only she can, interrelationships toward social harmony prove a more useful tool for solving the issues than magic and wizards in The Other Wind.  Another soft fantasy novel, she again defies the clichés of epic fantasy with her plot structure and mode of conflict.  Events arising and unfolding in realistic fashion that does not involve mammoth wars or wizardly duels, instead, diplomacy, understanding, and perennial wisdom save the day.  Moments of strong tension do exist, but they are the result of the social and political forces at play rather than the threat of imminent violence.  A man’s longing to escape his dreams and be with his wife; a king’s lack of willingness to take responsibility for his role; a woman’s fear she will be unable to perform the task set out for her, and a master’s pride in the face of tradition are just a few of the back stories causing the more overt threats to the archipelago.

While inter-cultural politics play a role in the novel, the fairy tale glass through which Le Guin presents the theme sometimes distracts from the seriousness of the scenes.  The message burning at the heart is meaningful, only the delivery lacks a certain maturity of tone, in turn reducing impact.  Given the overall import of the theme—its parallel to our own world affairs—a lot can be forgiven given the poignancy of the implications.

In the end, The Other Wind is a well rounded finale that resolves all of the major plotlines both in- and external to the novel.  Ged, Tenar, Arren, Tehanu, and a variety of other character story arcs receive treatment and are concluded not only in satisfactory fashion, but in ways that meet Le Guin’s literary goals.  The story subtle and concerned with social and political conflicts less discussed in fantasy, readers should thus expect a narrative more in line with the second half of the Earthsea Cycle rather than the original trilogy.  

(For those who have read the book and the Earthsea Cycle as a whole, you may be interested in reading a paper I wrote on its Daoist tenets and angles on contemporary theory called "Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle: Paralleling Contemporary Theory with an Eye to the Past".  Part I is here and Part II, here.)  

(This review has also been posted at  

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