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The Other Wind
Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt, 246 pages

The Other Wind
Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929, the daughter of a writer and an anthropologist. She published her first novel, Rocannon's World, in 1966. Her fourth novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, a feat she repeated with The Dispossessed (1974). The Earthsea trilogy established her as a master of fantasy as well as science fiction. She has also published poetry and short story collections, and she received the Pilgrim Award in 1989 for her critical writings.

Ursula K. Le Guin Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Telling
SF Site Review: The Dispossessed
Le Guin's World
The Ekumen: An Ursula K. Le Guin Reference Page

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

Ursula K. Le Guin's world of Earthsea is one of fantasy's best-known and best-loved creations. The original trilogy (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore), was published for young adults, but has long been accepted into the canon of adult literature. It focuses on the life and exploits of the wizard Ged, following him from boyhood into the maturity of his magery, and thence to the close of his career (and the death of his power). While Le Guin never writes conventionally, and these books are distinguished by subtle characterization and deeply-considered themes, they are squarely in the high fantasy tradition, both in subject matter and narrative technique. High fantasy isn't self-reflective (the underpinnings of heroic fantasy worlds are rarely examined). It doesn't much concern itself with the ordinary logistics of daily existence. And its characters are always larger than life.

Seventeen years after publication of The Farthest Shore, Le Guin returned to Earthsea with Tehanu. Tehanu continues Ged's story, and also Tenar's (from The Tombs of Atuan) -- a tying-up of loose ends long desired by fans of the series, but which Le Guin approached with a radically changed literary and political agenda. High fantasy is more or less abandoned in Tehanu, which is mainly about the sort of ordinary life that epic tales ignore, in all its mundanity, cruelty, and evil. The book ruthlessly cuts its once-heroic characters down to human size, and moves beyond self-reflection into deconstruction in its challenging of the underlying assumptions of the previous novels -- from the gender basis of magic, to the nobility of the wizardly path, to the value of power itself.

This politically-charged re-thinking of an iconic fantasy world was not at all what readers might have expected, and many hated the book. Yet Le Guin's deconstruction of Earthsea is an impressive feat of imagination in its own right, and Tehanu is a moving, powerfully-written novel. Ged and Tenar, in their newly fallible humanity, are no less compelling than they were as larger-than-life heroes; also, they are able to make the emotional and physical connection that was suggested at the end of The Tombs of Atuan, but that would not have been possible within the structure of the previous books. Not everything works -- the evil mages who capture Tenar and Ged toward the end of the book are more caricatures than characters, an entirely unsubtle embodiment of Le Guin's political agenda. And the recontextualization of the magic of Earthsea has the ultimate effect of devaluing it, with the result that when high magic abruptly intrudes upon the plot, in the form of the dragon Kalessin, it's not entirely convincing. In a world where the very basis of magic can be questioned, in which the power of mages is suspect because it's also the power of men and Ged's grief for his lost power is portrayed as self-pity, a dragon no longer really seems to have a place.

A decade after Tehanu, Le Guin has entered the world of Earthsea yet again, with a volume of short works, Tales From Earthsea, and a new novel, The Other Wind. She hasn't abandoned her revisionist approach (in Tales from Earthsea, for instance, we learn that Roke, that bastion of male magery, was partly founded by women). But she uses that approach, this time, to explore Earthsea rather than to challenge it -- expanding and enriching its history, following threads and themes left open by previous books. If the first three novels are pure epic fantasy, in which ordinary life plays little part, and Tehanu is (as much as any fantasy novel can be) anti-fantasy, in which high magic has become more or less irrelevant, these works exist somewhere at the midpoint. As Ged himself might say: "Thus is Equilibrium maintained."

Tales From Earthsea is mostly back-story, filling in a number of gaps in Earthsea's history; The Other Wind takes Earthsea's story forward. As the novel begins, Alder, a sorcerer of modest ability, comes seeking Ged, who is living with Tenar in contented retirement on the island of Gont. Alder has been sent by the Masters of Roke, because he has been dreaming strangely of the land of the dead (known as the dry land). Though Ged no longer has any power, he knows more about the dry land than any man living, for he entered it long ago to defeat the wizard Cob, who breached the barrier between death and life in his search for immortality.

Alder tells Ged that he dreamed first of his dead wife Lily, whom he kissed across the low stone wall that divides the dry land from the world of the living. Such contact is not supposed to be possible, even in dreams. Now Alder dreams not only of Lily, but of whole armies of the dead, who gather at the wall and whisper to him: Set us free! He is terrified of his sleep, for he fears that the dead mean somehow to use him to pass into the living world.

Ged, certain that Alder's dreams portend some great change for Earthsea, sends Alder to the city of Havnor, where Tenar and Tehanu have gone to offer counsel to the High King, Lebannen. There's another troubling portent of change: the dragons of Earthsea, which for centuries have kept their promise to abide in their western lands, have suddenly begun moving east, burning farms and cropland. Also present in Havnor is a Kargish princess, to whom Lebannen is unwillingly betrothed; she knows legends unfamiliar to the others. Later comes Orm Irian, a dragon who is also a woman, with word of her people's anger against humans, whom they believe have stolen a part of the dragons' realm.

Piecing together Orm Irian's warning, Alder's dreams, and the princess's legends, Lebannen and the others begin to perceive a larger unbalancing of the world, which may have its roots in the almost-forgotten agreement by which dragons and humans, once a single people, divided themselves in two. Together they journey to the mages' island of Roke. There, in the Immanent Grove that lies at the center of all things, they confront a truth that -- as Ged suspected -- has the power to change everything.

The Other Wind takes up two major themes, and one story thread from previous Earthsea volumes. The thread, of course, is Tehanu, the burned and disfigured girl adopted by Tenar and Ged. In the novel Tehanu, it's revealed that she is the daughter of the dragon Kalessin, and that she has a significant destiny to fulfill. The Other Wind follows her into that destiny, and a final redemption of her suffering.

As for the themes, the first of them, that humans and dragons were once one people, appeared briefly in Tehanu, but there wasn't much room in that revisionist fantasy to explore it. Now it is not only explored, but made central to the history of Earthsea. Human magic, it turns out, is a direct result of a betrayal of the ancient covenant by which humankind separated itself from dragonkind; as such, it is part of the world's unbalance. Once again, Le Guin calls the basis of magery into question -- but she does so this time from within Earthsea, on Earthsea's own terms. It's possible, therefore, to find not just forgiveness, but resolution.

The second theme is death -- or more precisely, the land of the dead, the dry land. The dry land has been a powerful presence throughout the series; but it has simply been presented, without explanation for why it should be so bleak and dark, or why the dead should be trapped in so empty an afterlife. These are questions that have surely troubled many readers, and Le Guin answers them now in full. This cold, blank afterlife, it turns out, is exactly as unnatural as it seems -- it's the result, in fact, of a mistake, another error of magery. The hows and whys of this retroactive explanation, as well as the revelation of what kind of freedom the dead are really seeking, beautifully tie together elements of previous books; and once again, allow for resolution. (Some reviewers have commented that the ending of The Other Wind recalls the emergence of the dead in Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass; but the comparison really should go the other way, for I was struck, when I read Spyglass, by how much Pullman's land of the dead resembles Le Guin's descriptions of the dry land in The Farthest Shore.)

On a less exalted level, The Other Wind is a continuation of its recurring characters' stories -- Ged, Tenar, Lebannen. It's also Alder's story, and the story of Seserakh, the Kargish princess. Where the other books have been primarily single-viewpoint narratives, Le Guin here uses a multiple-viewpoint technique, slipping gracefully in and out of her characters' heads, offering not just different pieces of the tale, but different perspectives on it. These smaller, personal threads, woven with the larger, sweeping ones, form a narrative that is as intimate as it is grandly mythic. The ordinariness of things is never neglected: again and again, Le Guin turns from matters of high fantasy to the small concerns of daily life -- picking plums in an orchard, mending a fence, sitting in a garden, playing cards aboard ship. "Indeed he did not know what weighed more heavily after all, the great strange things or the small common ones," Alder thinks at one point. In the wider context of the world, the small common things are as meaningful as the awesome mageries, and they too are at stake in the struggle to restore the balance.

The Other Wind is a challenging, satisfying work -- a book that, unlike some other late additions to established series, really did demand to be written. A working knowledge of Earthsea is required to appreciate it -- I wouldn't recommend, for those who haven't read the other novels, beginning here. Even those already familiar with Earthsea might consider doing some re-reading, in order to better appreciate the many references to previous books.

Copyright © 2001 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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