Category Archives: Books

Rereading: THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. Le Guin

Profusely illustrated by Charles Vess.

In the second Earthsea novel, Le Guin took a step further away from traditional fantasy themes and a step forward on her own unique path by making the viewpoint character a young woman. In a genre that was then thought to appeal mainly to men and boys, young adult fantasy in 1970, this was almost unheard of.

Tenar is the young woman, taken from her parents in infancy to become the priestess of the Old Gods of the Kargish Lands at the eastern edge of Earthsea, where the magic and wizards of the Inner Sea are forbidden and ineffective. The Old Gods had great power once, but that power has faded, replaced by newer gods and god-kings in the Kargish islands, but their worship is still led by a group of women priests and eunichs in the remote desert temples of the compound where Tenar now lives. Despite her role as chief priestess of the Old Gods, Tenar’s life is highly controlled and restricted by those around her. The one place where she has true power is in the vast maze-tunneled underground complex beneath the tombs of Atuan. This area is largely unknown to even the other women of the place. Tenar has been carefully taught to memorize the routes through it to the various rooms and treasures it contains.

One day Tenar detects a strange man inside the maze, something that has not happened in perhaps hundreds of years. At first she is furious at the desecration of her province, and leads the man into a trap deep inside the maze, but in time, she begins to speak to the man, and decides to spare his life to learn more about him and his world. That man is Ged, hero of the first book, now a full wizard of Earthsea, though his powers are greatly reduced in this stronghold of the Old Gods. Can his conversations with Tenar change her perception of the world enough to allow them both to escape the prison of the maze and the Tombs of Atuan? What will the response of the Old Gods be to that? Such is the meat of this excellent story.

Highly recommended.

Rereading: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA

I bought the Charles Vess illustrated “Books of Earthsea” at the San Diego Con, even though I already own most of the contents. Charles’ wonderful illustrations made it a must-have anyway. Above is the dust jacket of this thick tome, and the title page illustration for the first book in the series. Each book has a full-page painting similar to the dust jacket and many black and gray tone illustrations, all terrific.

I don’t think I’d reread this book since it came out in the 1960s. Despite that, I remembered some of the characters, settings and plot, a tribute to Le Guin’s writing skill.

Earthsea is a large collection of islands, and young Sparrowhawk is a young man on one of them, Gont. While his public name is thus, his true name is Ged, as he finds out in this story, and Ged also discovers he has a powerful talent for magic. The magic of Earthsea revolves around the true names of things, and as Ged begins to learn a few of them from a local witch and wizard, he gains power, or rather his innate power comes forth. Even in his youth and inexperience, Ged is able to confuse some raiding soldiers with fog and mist, saving most of his village. Ged’s teacher suggests he should go to the school for wizards on the island of Roke to gain more knowledge, a place where all the best wizards of Earthsea live and teach. Once he arrives, Ged’s pride and jealousy aroused by the taunting of a fellow student lead him to cast a dangerous spell beyond his control. This unleashes a great evil in the world, one that nearly kills Ged, and one that will always continue to try to destroy him. The only solution is for Ged to fight back, to pursue the evil shadow and conquer it, even to the ends of Earthsea.

This is a great read, and where it really came to life for me is when Ged meets, speaks with and battles his first dragon. There’s something about the way Le Guin handles the dragons that stands out from the fantasy crowd, and puts her at the level of Tolkien. While this book follows fantasy traditions in some ways, in others it breaks new ground. I can’t recommend it enough. If you haven’t read it, you should!

And Then I Read: THE OVERNEATH by Peter S. Beagle

I’ve been enjoying the writing of Peter S. Beagle a very long time, since discovering his fantasy novels “A Fine and Private Place” and “The Last Unicorn” in the late 1960s. He continues to entertain me. This collection gathers stories from various anthologies dated 2010 through 2016.

“The Green-Eyed Boy” is a tale of Beagle’s character Schmendrick the Magician just starting out in his ill-fated career, an important incident for fans of “The Last Unicorn.”

“The Story of Kao Yu” tells of a Chinese unicorn (of sorts) who helps a famous judge decide some of his most troubling cases…until the judge finds himself in moral jeopardy.

“My Son Heydari and the Karkadann” tells of yet another kind of unicorn, this one a fierce beast of Iran akin to a rhinoceros, and the young man and his girlfriend who help nurse an injured one back to health.

“The Queen Who Could Not Walk” asks, if you are raised with every privilege to offset your disability, what will happen when you are turned out into the streets with nothing?

“Trinity County, CA” wonders what might happen if lawmen trying to control illegal drugs had to deal with guardian dragons owned by the drug lords?

In “The Way It Works Out And All,” Beagle uses real-life fantasy writer and his mentor, Avram Davidson in a fun fictional adventure in which Avram has discovered The Overneath, a way to travel great distances quickly, but a dangerous one.

“Kaskia” features a laptop computer so inexplicable to its user that it might well be magic. The messages he’s receiving certainly seem to be from some other world than ours.

“Schmendrick Alone” is another tale of bungled magic that the wizard allows to get out of control.

“Great-Grandmother in the Cellar” is a chilling tale of a family secret that is not only their horror, but at times their savior.

“Underbridge” is a modern day troll story set in Seattle, and using an actual troll sculpture found there as the focal point.

“The Very Nasty Aquarium” asks, can an ancient evil reside in a simple aquarium decoration, and what happens when the water starts turning black?

“Music, When Soft Voices Die” describes four rooming-house inhabitants in a sort of Victorian steampunk London. One of them is experimenting with early radio devices, and unleashes voices from the dead that will not be silenced.

“Olfert Dapper’s Day” takes place in 17th-century Maine, where the title character once reported to have seen a real unicorn. Beagle’s development of this spare idea is fascinating.

All good stories, and recommended.

And Then I Read: THE COLOR OF MAGIC by Terry Pratchett

I came to the Discworld series late, when most of it was already written. There are lots of titles, over 40. I read up on where to start. The advice was, don’t try to read them in order, pick a series within the series and follow that. I did so with the Tiffany Aching books — loved them — and the Going Postal books — loved them as well. Tried a few others at random. Finally, I decided to read this one, the very first.

While I’d been able to pick up the general geography and plan of Discworld from some of the other books, the first one makes it more understandable thanks to the wide range of action and Terry’s explanations as he went along. Why did I listen to all that advice, I should have started here! Giant flat disc with central land mass surrounded by oceans, which pour continuously over the edge. Disc on the back of four immense elephants themselves on the back of an even more immense sea turtle swimming through space. Got it. Established: this is a world not possible without magic. There’s plenty of that in the book.

The story focuses on Rincewind, who calls himself a wizard, but in fact he has almost no wizardly abilities due to flunking out of wizard school. He agrees to become the personal guide to Twoflower, a rich but clueless tourist from a faraway empire. Rincewind plans to pocket his large fee and skedaddle, but he’s forced to actually honor the agreement by the ruler of his home city, Ankh-Morpork to keep Twoflower’s empire from taking revenge for the trick. Twoflower has a list of events and places he wants to visit, all of them very dangerous or nearly impossible to achieve. His one important asset is a magical trunk that not only holds his fortune, but almost anything else Twoflower might need. The trunk has many small legs, and doggedly and unerringly follows Twoflower everywhere, even when left far behind. The trunk has teeth and a dangerous appetite when threatened.

Through these characters, we get to see many areas and their inhabitants on Discworld, even in the surrounding ocean. The flavor is humorous, at times satiric, but the characters are believable and entertaining, perhaps not least because they all have agendas that include getting some of Twoflower’s money for themselves. Is there an honest man or woman on Discworld? They’re mighty scarce.

A fun read, and recommended.

Rereading: THE STAR BEAST by Robert A. Heinlein

Cover art by Clifford Geary

As has often been the case, I reread a Heinlein book on my way to the San Diego Con last week. I didn’t bring my hardcover copy (which does not have the dust jacket pictured above, sadly), I read an ebook version.

“Star Beast” is the eighth of the author’s juveniles series, science fiction novels written for young readers, most published by Scribners in the 1950s. This one came out in 1954. It takes place in a future Earth which has had spaceflight for a few centuries, and had contact with a number of non-terrestrial species and civilizations. The protagonist, teenager John Thomas Stuart XI, lives in the small Rocky Mountains town of Westville. The one unusual thing about his life is his pet, Lummox, a creature brought back from an early space expedition by his great-grandfather. At the time, Lummox was about the size of a dog, but he has continued to grow, and developed the ability to speak English in the manner of a child. Lummox is now the size of a small bus, and quartered in a large barn in John Thomas’ back yard, which he’s been forbidden to leave. The creature is obedient, but boredom eventually causes him to find a way to sneak out, and soon he’s caused a great deal of damage to property all over Westville.

John Thomas’ widowed mother does not like Lummox, and sees this as a way to get the animal destroyed. At first John Thomas and his girlfriend try to protect Lummox, but attempts by the town’s police chief to kill the beast (unsuccessful) lead them to engineer an escape into the mountains where they hope to hide out.

Meanwhile, Mr. Kiku, a career diplomat with Earth’s Department of Spacial Affairs, is having trouble negotiating with a new, powerful alien species, whose ship has arrived in Earth orbit. Their negotiator demands the return of a lost child they are sure is on Earth, though no creature similar to the Hroshi has ever been seen there. As you might imagine, these two stories soon intertwine in a very entertaining way.

I hadn’t read this fine book in a long time, and one thing that surprised me was how talky it is. I expect that of Heinlein’s later works, but this one is about two-thirds dialogue. Despite that, the story moves along well, and all the characters and ideas are clever and appealing. This is one of the funniest and most charming of Heinlein’s works. Highly recommended.