When I first tried reading this in my teens I could not manage to go beyond 50 pages because I wanted Ged (AKA Sparrowhawk), the hero of the previous volume A Wizard of Earthsea, to show up and follow him on new adventures. What I found instead was a story of an entirely new protagonist, a young girl called Tenar who lives an oppressive life on the island of Atuan. Young fool that I was, I did not read on to the middle of the book where Ged does show up for more adventures, though this time as the secondary character. If I had waited I would realized this second volume of the Earthsea trilogy is even better than the first.
The pacing of The Tombs of Atuan
is much more staid than A Wizard of Earthsea, much of the first half of book is spent on fairly elaborate world building, developing the insular, claustrophobic setting of Atuan. LeGuin's skills with character development and the eloquence of her prose maintains my interest during the slower paced early part of the book. Tenar is a fine character, intelligent, resilient and resourceful. I love how her character dveelops as she gradually realizes the truth about the things she has dedicated her life to serve and worship. However, for me Ged is like the battery that powers the plot of the story. Le Guin really switches to second gear as soon as he suddenly pops up, the story gallops on from that point.
This book is much darker and more mature than A Wizard of Earthsea, the scenes in the pitch dark of the Labyrinth is highly evocative and a little creepy. I was reading this on a sunny afternoon and I could still feel the creeping darkness, thank God for Ged's enfeebled mage light! Even though the "big bad" Nameless Ones never really come out of the shadow to show us some dripping fangs, cyclopean eyes, tentacles and such, Le Guin still manages to make their evil quite palpable.
OK, I don't want to write a long review for such a short book, so short that I am still hankering for some more Earthsea time, so now I am busy reading the third volume The Farthest Shore.
Update: After finishing The Farthest Shore I believe this is my favorite book of the original trilogy. I just love the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere in this one. Looking at a few other reviews it seems to be a fan favorite also.