The fifth book in the Earthsea series is a collection of five stories, two of them long ones, filling in some of the history and use of magic on Earthsea. Le Guin, in her afterword, says, “It would have simplified things for my publishers and me if the fifth book of Earthsea had been a novel, but it wasn’t.”
The first story, “The Finder,” takes place 600 years before the main storyline. It tells of Otter, a young boat builder who has great innate powers of magic. He wants only to use them to improve the boats he and his family build, but when his power is noticed by the wizard Losen, employed by the local King, he is captured and brought to a mining camp where he is coerced into becoming a finder of mercury ore, the prize sought by Losen. At the time, wizards were all out for themselves, and generally employed by the rich and powerful. Otter wants to escape, and he meets a young woman with even greater innate magic. The two of them manage to bury Losen deep in the ground and leave the mine on foot, heading to a refuge in the mountains. Eventually Otter becomes a catalyst in the founding of the school of wizards on Roke that many years later will be the seat of magic power and influence in Earthsea, but Otter’s own story is a tangled one. This is the longest story.
“Darkrose and Diamond” is a love story about a boy who loves both music and magic. His father wants him to follow in his trade, but Diamond wants to play music with his sweetheart, Rose and her friends. Diamond is sent to study magic with an older wizard, and learns that to be one himself he must be celibate, something very far from what he wants.
“The Bones of the Earth” takes place on Gont some years before the main storyline, and tells of the earthquake that nearly destroyed the island’s main city and harbor, and how the power of two magicians prevented that at great cost to themselves.
“On the High Marsh” tells of a poor family who takes in a wandering mage who is only comfortable with animals. He finds a place in their village helping with a disease killing local cattle, but the people he comes in contact with fear his quick anger, and want him gone. Another mage we know well arrives to help.
“Dragonfly” tells of a young woman, on the island of Way whose family has fallen into poverty because of her father’s drinking and quarrels. A local magician from the school on Roke, Ivory, becomes enamored of her and tells her she has magical powers that should be trained. He convinces Dragonfly to come with him to Roke. His plan is to disguise her with magic as a young man so she can be trained, but the wizards of Roke soon see through her disguise. She is sent to the Immanent Grove, where she finds a home while the chief wizards decide what to do with her. Her power turns out to be something much stronger than they expect. This is the other long story.
This is a fine book, and I enjoyed rereading it. It builds on Earthsea history in interesting ways, as Le Guin turned the course of that history in a new direction.