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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Review: The Tombs of Atuan

Book 2 of the Earthsea series is told not from the point of view of Ged, but from the point of view of Tenar, the one priestess of the Tombs of Atuan, who is supposedly the servant of the Nameless Ones, the evil gods who dwell in the Tombs.

We learn of her origin, her service, and her cruelty in sentencing men to their deaths. Interestingly, I picked up her reluctance and her nightmares better as an adult than as a child, showing perhaps, that when I was younger, I just wanted to get to the good parts, when Ged shows up.

Ged does show up, not as a powerful Wizard, but perhaps as a bit of a bungler, not quite knowing what he is in for, and again, my first reading of the novel was that he got rescued by Tenar, but in this second reading I see that the interaction between them is quite a bit more subtle than my impression.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment I felt is that the sense of lyrical beauty that was achieved in the prose of A Wizard of Earthsea is if not altogether missing, rather muted in this second novel. Unlike the sense of activity in the first novel, the feeling in The Tombs of Atuan is that of constraint, of fear. Even when Tenar breaks free of her past she is not exhilarated, but is instead fearful. There is hope at the end of the novel, but it is tentative, almost unable to breathe on its own. Perhaps this was a reflection of the time of the writing (1972), when women's liberation was just starting to stretch its wings.

Any short novel that can achieve all this while telling an unconventional fantasy story (Ged is not a hero, but neither is Tenar a heroine) comes highly recommended.

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