Le Guin, Ursula K. (2001). The Other Wind. New York: Harcourt.

Reviewed 18 September 2001

Le Guin, The Other Wind (cover) Tehanu (4 stars) is definitely not the "Last Book of Earthsea" now! Following close on the heels of Tales of Earthsea (4 stars) (reviewed here in May), The Other Wind extends Le Guin's Earthsea books through its second discrete trilogy.

That is what Le Guin has done here. The first three books are about Ged/Sparrowhawk, and his struggles with the three essential components of personal development: self-identity, sex, and death. The second three books, while set in Earthsea, are really not about people at all; they are about dragons. On second thought, they are about people, because these aren't cartoon dragons out of some bad writer's pale shadow of Der Ring des Niebelungen (which, itself, is a secondary telling). These are Jungian dragons, the dragons in everyone's soul. Thus, we're back to the struggle with identity, sex, and death again.

The Other Wind can certainly be read on its own, and it's a fine book in its own right. However, Wind makes much more sense when read as a simultaneous shadow and caster of shadows against The Farthest Shore and "Dragonfly," the last story in Tales, which previously appeared in Robert Silverberg's all-star anthology Legends—and, sad to say, was the only piece there that could truly stand alongside the source works. Wind is a quest, but a rather strange one, one outside the tradition of Quest that has come to dominate commodity fantasy. The protagonist, Alder (take a look at Makah mythology, not just Ivar's or the lumber yard), does not seek a kingdom, or riches, or the princess. He seeks sleep unhaunted by the dead.

One possible interpretation (a weak one, but one that will no doubt be put forward by disapproving idiots who have their own agendas) of the resolution of the dead in Wind is as a disapproving echo of Revelations. However, Le Guin carefully avoids the risks inherent in allegory, because it's not quite as disapproving as it immediately seems. The surface conflict between the dragons' and man's choices is not quite so clear as even Irian makes it seem:

"Do you think we dragons fly only on the winds of this world? Do you think our freedom, for which we gave up all possessions, is no greater than that of the mindless gulls? That our realm is a few rocks at the edge of your rich islands? You own the earth, you own the sea. But we are the fire of sunlight, we fly the wind! You wanted land to own. You wanted things to keep. And you have that. That was the division, the verw nadan. But you were not content with your share. You wanted the wind! And by the spells and wizardries of those oath-breakers, you stole half our realm from us, walled it away from life and light, so that you could live there forever. Thieves, traitors!"

Of course, this is out of context. (I'm not going to spoil the rest of the book!) The result is much more complex than any allegory. Irian's own words indicate that the dragons don't quite understand, either; the dragons claim two possessions which they are unwilling to give up: air and fire.

What makes Wind a work of fiction, rather than another New Age book of platitudes wrapped up in some worthless, self-aggrandizing author's-shadow-character's pseudoquest for self-enlightenment as in Jonathan Livingston Guano, is the care Le Guin pays to making the characters consistent with both themselves and with their context. Alder ultimately succeeds because he both has no illusions about himself and is satisfied with that; conversely, the Summoner nearly destroys all, explaining that he pulled Alder back from the wall between death and life "Because I had the power to do it." Irian, Tehanu, Tenar, and Lebannen are characters we have met before, and they have changed. But they change in a consistent, comprehensible way, without resorting to a vision on the road to Damascus.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent (award candidate).
This is the most tightly integrated work of speculative fiction that I've first read this year, and further proof that SFWA is making a serious mistake in not awarding Le Guin the Grandmaster. (I've done that rant often enough…) If what you're looking for is a rousing adventure, this is not the book for you. But then, if that's what you're looking for, why are you reading any of my reviews? The Other Wind is proof that integrating the theme with the characters, plot, environment, and prose is worthwhile. I only wish it was as easy as Le Guin makes it look.

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