book review: the tombs of atuan

The Tombs of Atuan is one of Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, and I have the vague feeling that it’s one she was less than pleased with decades later, which is why the main character returns in Tehanu. I confess I don’t know exactly why I think this is the case. It’s one of those things I read out in the digital wilds, I guess.

In this story, Tenar is a young girl who is raised to be a priestess of shadowy death in a nation ruled by god-kings (who are in competition with her older and more ineffable deities). She learns the ways of power and her labyrinth domain to such a degree that when Sparrowhawk the sorceror arrives looking for treasure and blundering into their traps she is in a much more powerful position than he is. But she abandons her life in the tombs and in the end she escapes.

Reading the story, I could see why LeGuin would want to revisit it later. Politically there’s a lot of reification of colonial and patriarchical themes in this story. Her backward ways are overturned by encountering the rational mage who liberates a girl who would remain trapped for all her life if he hadn’t happened along. This is happening to a heroine who’s already had her name stripped from her. I mean Tenar is a fine character but if you’re interested in feminism she’s not exactly an aspirational model.

It still strikes me oddly that I’m only reading these books as a 30-something-year-old person. I wonder why these weren’t part of my early sf education. They should be for kids today.

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