The first book in the Earthsea cycle, A Wizard of Earthsea, offered a nuanced take on the fantasy trope of the wizard who comes of age into his power and learns that universal axiom “with great power comes great responsibility.” This second entry into the cycle shifts momentarily away from Ged’s story toward Tenar, who at birth is selected as the First Priestess of the Tombs of Atuan. Her story neatly deconstructs the equally common-in-fantasy Chosen One trope and also serves as a lesson about challenging assumptions, even those — especially those — that have been engrained since birth.
I’ll use the Goodreads summary here, partly out of laziness and partly because it’s perfectly concise: “When young Tenar is chosen as high priestess to the ancient and nameless Powers of the Earth, everything is taken away – home, family, possessions, even her name. For she is now Arha, the Eaten One, guardian of the ominous Tombs of Atuan.
While she is learning her way through the dark labyrinth, a young wizard, Ged, comes to steal the Tombs’ greatest hidden treasure, the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Ged also brings with him the light of magic, and together, he and Tenar escape from the darkness that has become her domain.”
The Tombs of Atuan was, for me, even more enjoyable than A Wizard of Earthsea, partly because there is an unexpected development with regards to the nature of the powers that Tenar/Arha serves — a twist that is expertly foreshadowed without passing judgement on the young protagonist along the way. It’s also a great installment in Ged’s story, and nicely highlights both the quality of his ability as a wizard and the depth of his maturity, which allow him to provide the necessary wisdom and strength for Tenar. The resolution was simple and comforting; I only wish we’d gotten any kind of glimpse into Tenar’s life in her new environment. Though the main arc of the cycle is Ged’s life story, we do leave Tenar in a rather fragile place, and that uncertainty feels out of place in a series of stories that, so far, deals in happy endings. Her ending, to be fair, is certainly implied to be happy: the feeling is very much “it gets better,” but my wishful thinking is to actually see when it is.