To the Isle of Gont, the rustic retreat of the former Archmage, Ged, comes Alder, a village sorceror who is afflicted by haunting dreams of his dead wife. Like all the dead in the world of Earthsea, his wife's soul is consigned to the desolate Dry Land, beyond that low wall of dark stones, to which only a Mage may safely travel... It isn't just his wife, however, who is haunting Alder. The dead en masse seem eager for his attention, and still more eager to get out of the Dry Land for good, and are actually attempting to dismantle the wall that contains them.
Alder is sent to seek Ged by the mages of the Isle of Roke, Ged in turn sends him to the Great Isle of Havnor, where the (not so young anymore) King Lebannen, is fending off both an unexpected invasion of dragons and the attentions of an unlooked for and unwanted potential bride with the help of Ged's wife, Tenar, and adoptive daughter, Tehanu (who is, in some as yet unclear fashion, both a human and a dragon).
Le Guin's fiction, whether in the Earthsea setting or otherwise, has always been a plot and character-driven exploration of profound themes. The nature of evil and ambition, the purpose and validity of religion, the fear of death, have all had an outing in earlier Earthsea novels.
In The Other Wind, the key issue is, of course, death. What is death? What is the afterlife? What is it that mortals should seek in death, what should they expect? What are, in a very philosophical sense, the proper bounds and place and possibilities open to the dead?
It isn't the first time that Le Guin has explored this theme. Her third novel in the sequence, The Farthest Shore, was a vivid exploration of how one man's desire for immortality could threaten a whole world with collapse. It was also, however, a taut, brisk, highly engaging quest. The narrative had the energy necessary to support such a weighty theme. Sadly, The Other Wind, does not.
When Le Guin chose to follow the sometimes regrettable trend in recent years, of adding further volumes to an old and hallowed work, it was disquieting. But Tehanu, the fourth novel in the Earthsea sequence, confounded low expectations with its clarity, vigour and tension. Unfortunately, in a clear departure from earlier Earthsea books (though Tehanu was tending this way), The Other Wind disperses its energies in a variety of directions; Alder's afflicted dreams, King Lebannen's reign and political problems, the demands and fears of the dragons (and of the humans who are dragons), the equivocal nature of death... The elements that make up the story do not gel into a pleasing whole, rather they contend with each other.
LeGuin's prose is still smooth, and it's a pleasure to see old friends resume their tales and resolve various elements of their lives, but the story is an odd, ungainly thing, trying to be and do too much, and failing, at the end, to convince us that in any single area it has done enough. The Earthsea Trilogy has long-since secured a deserved place in the pantheon of Fantasy Classics. As one of the formative influences on much of what we read today it's up there with the works of Tolkien, Howard, Leiber, Moorcock and Vance. But now there is a strong sense of artificiality in LeGuin's solution to the conundrums she has set her characters, a regrettable air of an author tampering with the bedrock rules of her world, in order to justify telling another story about it.
The Other Wind is, in sum, a disappointment, and a clear signal that the Earthsea sequence has reached its proper conclusion. The prospect of more works, of perhaps steadily declining quality, is nothing to look forward to.
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© Simeon Shoul 13 July 2002