Le Guin, Ursula K. (2001). Tales From Earthsea. New York: Harcourt.

Reviewed 07 May 2001

Le Guin, Tales From Earthsea (cover) Tehanu (4 stars), Le Guin's last book of Earthsea (erroneously subtitled "The Last Book of Earthsea"), is a decade old now. Although it's not a novel, Tales From Earthsea manages to maintain the sense of Earthsea at least as well as did Tehanu, and each of the stories demonstrates that Le Guin writes stories at the right length: what they need, not what will sell. In this respect, the stories in this book are on the whole much better than those in either Legends or Far Horizons, which more than adequately demonstrated that asking most authors to revisit their greatest novel-length successes at novelette and novella length is asking for disappointment.

Each story in the book offers something slightly different, and as a group they help fill much of the backstory to Earthsea—and some of it frontstory, too. Although the stories are not integrated as some kind of "fix-up"—Le Guin seems far too wise to tread that particular tightrope—they nonetheless form a kind of cycle.

•  The collection opens with "The Finder," a story that revolves around creation of the wizards' school on Roke. One could draw many different themes out of this story, but the most consistent is Otter/Medra's exclusion by orthodoxy. What is most remarkable about Le Guin's treatment of this theme is that she handles it lightly, but without devaluing it. In the end, the real question illuminated in this theme is quite simple: who is allowed to learn, to have power, to exercise power? It's the answer that remains complex.

•  "Darkrose and Diamond," the next story, begins to probe this question further. The protagonists are again young adults in the throes of discovering their own identities. The question of authorization to learn provides an interesting counterpoint that never fully resolves itself in this short tale.

•  "The Bones of the Earth" continues this counterpoint, but this time from a generational relationship rather than one between peers. This particular story also bears a direct link to A Wizard of Earthsea by explaining more about Ogion's past, before Re Albi. The story is not inconsistent with the earlier trilogy (a trap all too easy, and all to common, with prequels), but begins to place some different perspective on Ged's history.

•  "On the High Marsh" appears to have no relationship to the previous stories in this volume. Instead, it questions the consequences of ill-considered actions, and whether (and how) one learns from those actions. It also considers the value of power, and the costs and feasibility of translation between forms of power.

•  "Dragonfly" closes the cycle begun in "The Finder," and both answers and asks more questions. Transmigration and identity are examined through another struggle between individuals and exclusion by orthodoxy. This time, the exclusion might be justified—but not for the initially apparent reasons. That something was wrong became apparent during the struggles to name Irian, and the inability of several magic users to determine her proper name. Just what was wrong is skillfully hidden, but without hiding the ball, until the last two pages of the story.

The only significant flaw in Tehanu was its disdain for the yang (male) aspect. Admittedly, the novel was an attempt to provide some balance to the yang domination of the original trilogy and scattered stories. Le Guin has recognized that one does not create a work of art of real value by merely inverting a prior preconception. Instead, one must seek an equilibrium between the yin and the yang, just as the wizards of Earthsea strive to maintain the equilibrium of their reality.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent (award candidate).
There's no major award for "best collection" or "best anthology," but each of the stories in this collection has as much depth as most Hugo or Nebula nominees in the novel category. "The Finder" (novella) and "On the High Marsh" (novelette) should each get major consideration for the Hugo and Nebula in their respective classes.

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