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.

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