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Kiln People
Beth Meacham, David Brin

The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore - Ursula K. Le Guin
“I would not ask a sick man to run a race,” said Sparrowhawk, “nor lay a stone on an overburdened back.” It was not clear whether he spoke of himself or of the world at large. Always his answers were grudging, hard to understand. There, thought Arren, lay the very heart of wizardry: to hint at mighty meanings while saying nothing at all, and to make doing nothing at all seem the very crown of wisdom."

There are surely better passages to quote than the above to encapsulate the meaning or theme of this book but I think it's a fine example of Le Guin's beautiful writing and her ever-present wit. The Farthest Shore is the longest of the original Earthsea Trilogy but still a mere pamphlet by today's standard for fantasy books. It takes place seventeen years after events of The Tombs of Atuan, and the series hero Ged (AKA Sparrowhawk) is now old, and occupies the lofty position of Archmage. The story basically concerns "a hole in the world" that is sucking life, love, magic, names and other essentials out of the world (this strangely reminds me of the runaway black hole David Brin's Earth that I am still in the middle of). It falls to Ged and his young princely companion Arren to investigate and put an end to Earthsea's first first global crisis before the entire world is devoured. That is the basic plot but but does not begin to cover the point of the novel.

I believe this is the most philosophical volume of the original trilogy (thereby excluding the subsequent volumes - #4 onward - which I have not read). One of the main themes is the balance between life and death and how one give rise to the other in a cyclical manner. The idea of immortality is frowned upon as it upsets this balance and makes life meaningless. Ged's old age is often contrasted with Arren's youth, and they represent how the old must makes sacrifices for the young. This book is the slowest paced of the Trilogy, most of it is focused on the arduous and harrowing journey of the two central characters. While Ged is front and centre of the story the narrative point-of-view is almost entirely from Arren's perspective, thereby underlining his importance in the scheme of things. The character Arren is similar to Tenar in the The Tombs of Atuan and Ged himself in A Wizard of Earthsea in that he starts off as a naive young lad and develops into a man of substance by the story's conclusion. It is interesting that Le Guin achieves dramatic effect without an epic climactic battle in the final stretch of the book, the "fights" such as they are start and end very quickly and almost dismissively. The drama is achieved through tension and consequences of actions and events. Dragons play a much more significant role in this book, and the world of Earthsea continues to develop wonderfully. Particualry notable are the raft-folks whose water based community may have inspired a similar culture in China Miéville's The Scar, another fantastic book.

The Farthest Shore is not as breezy as A Wizard of Earthsea, not as dark as The Tombs of Atuan, but more emotional and melancholic than both. The end of the book wraps up the story of Ged beautifully. Here is a character we followed from his youth as a gifted goat herder boy, to a confident young man in the second book and now a strong and wise leader of the mages. As I understand it Le Guin came back to write Tehanu, the fourth book is the series more than twenty years after the publication of this book. I have not read it yet but the consensus opinion seem to be unfavorable, apparently it has a much more adult theme. I will have to read for myself soon. In any case the first three books are some of the best fantasy I have ever read.