Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Review - The Other Wind

The Other Wind
by Ursula K. Le Guin
2002 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Earthsea. I can't believe I'm back in Earthsea.

The first Earthsea book, A Wizard of Earthsea, is an exceptional piece of fantasy and a tight story. The next two sequels aren't quite as good but have their charms. And then there was Tehanu, a book about how all men secretly plotted to destroy women. That wasn't subtext; it was overtly stated repeatedly and at length.

After Tehanu I never wanted to see anything by Le Guin and particularly Earthsea related ever again. And yet here I am with The Other Wind. I considered dodging it and just pointing to the Tehanu review but if I can muster the will to read a second book by Robert J. Sawyer I can manage to fight through another Earthsea book.

My diligence was... well I can't say "rewarded" since it wasn't really a good book. How about, "My diligence did not condemn me to a painful literary hell."

A young man who has some natural talent in the ways of magic is left in perpetual mourning after his wife dies in childbirth. He begins dreaming each night of the division between life and death where the dead are pressing against the barrier and begging for release. The dreams haunt him and he is driven to seek help from Ged, the former archmage of Earthsea who lost his power when he repaired the barrier between life and death. At the same time dragons are entering Earthsea and terrorizing its inhabitants and the return of dragons may be tied to the dreams.

The Other Wind could have been retitled Earthsea: Wrapping Up Loose Ends. It's mainly a mashup of left over plot threads from the previous few Earthsea books. This isn't the first time that an author has returned to their creation much later to wrap things up for fans and like the vast majority of those The Other Wind is only going to appeal to people who are already fans of the series. It's not a novel that stands on its own; it cuts corners in both plot and characterization due to its connection with the previous books.

The initial plot line vanishes suddenly in the middle of the book so that Le Guin could pick up storylines from earlier books and give other characters resolution. This wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing but it feels clunky in the novel. It's like several short stories were welded together and the reader can see the seems between them since characters wander in, suddenly become the center of a large chunk of story, and then vanish off stage only to be mentioned in passing.

In the novel's favor the "All men hate women" theme is almost completely absent from The Other Wind only arising in one character's thoughts. Men as a whole are not portrayed at patronizing jerks (though one character does learn a valuable life lesson about it) and there aren't even villains who are out to get women just for being women.

Which isn't to say that The Other Wind is completely lacking in philisophical zaniness. There's a digression in the middle on politics that is so disconnected from human nature it left me boggled. It doesn't overwhelm the book but it is exactly the kind of thing I hate in speculative fiction: the author positing a "perfect" social structure where the real world analogues are dysfunctional.

I do have one more nice thing to say about this book. It had a decent conclusion that wrapped up Earthsea in a pretty bow. Given the number of long running series that have conclusions that leave the reader more annoyed than satisfied I have to compliment Le Guin on ending the series well.

As I said this book is only for people who are already fans of Earthsea. If you haven't read at least all of the other novels then you won't be able to understand The Other Wind. It's dependent upon the reader already having an emotional connection with the characters rather than establishing one of its own. So I can't recommend The Other Shore, though if you're already deep into the novel series then you might as well finish it off. You won't find anything horrible in the series conclusion either.