In a possibly controversial opinion, the final novel of the Earthsea cycle just might be my favorite. To get here, we’ve had two great adventures, an exploration of a foreign ritualistic spirituality, and a pointed take on the value of women in a world of male-dominated power, both political and magical. In this last book, all of those elements come together, and the story looks back to the origins of magic, just as it looks forward and asks where the people of Earthsea truly stand in the balance of the world.
The plot, on its face, is very simple: A common sorcerer named Alder has dreams of his late wife, Lily, standing at the wall between the dark, dry land of the dead and the world of the living. She calls out to him and has even touched him. Disturbed by the dreams and the way that they can seemingly effect others in his proximity, Alder visits Ged, King Lebannen (called Arren in book 3,where he first appears), and eventually the mage council of Roke to figure out what’s going on and how to stop the dreams.
It’s not actually that simple, of course. Here is the state of the world, in Earthsea: politically, there is a tenuous alliance between the Archipelago (the chain of islands around which most of the books take place and the home of Ged and Lebannen) and the Kargish lands (the foreign home of Tenar, and whose inhabitants once waged war on the Archipelago in book 1, and where the people worship the Old Powers and distrust the wizardry of their Archipeligan neighbors.) The restoration of the broken arm-ring of Erreth-Akbe in the second book symbolized the possibility of a new peace between the two lands, and the peace is holding, but the fact remains that the ring remains in the Archipelago, under their domain. As such, the current Kargish leader sends his daughter, a mysterious and reserved princess, to Lebannen, with the suggestion that if hers is the arm that wears the ring, peace will be more assuredly kept.
Meanwhile, though Ged had previously repaired the rift in the world of the dead that allowed the evil wizard Cob to enchant the minds of the living and ultimately rob them of their lives, the fact remains that magically, the world appears out of balance. While a king sits on the High Throne for the first time in centuries, now there is no Archmage of Earthsea, and the world of the dead is still finding ways to bleed into the minds of the living. Additionally, for the first time, a woman was granted passage to the island of Roke to train as a wizard, and the mage council is haltingly searching for “a woman on Gont,” who is supposed to be the key to the mystery of their inbalance. Mistrustful of women, the wizard are confused by their sudden relevance to their formerly all-male enclave of high magery.
And all of that, still, is just the foundation for the true story of The Other Wind, which is, essentially, to reveal the origins of Earthsea, and how a pact at the beginning between humans and dragons may hold the answer to how to truly restore balance. There is a lot of ambitious material to cover in 200 pages, but Le Guin does so, as always, with gorgeous prose that never wants for imagery but always delivers its message concisely, without pedantry or fluff.
I’m struck by how, at the time that I read the first book, I didn’t really find it wanting for anything; it hit all the right notes of fantasy and told a satisfying, if very traditional, story. But as I continued through the series, I appreciated the world and Le Guin’s decisions more and more. Not just content to further the plot as in traditional sequels, Le Guin changed her angle every time and found a way to progress the overall plot through an entirely new viewpoint in every book — not just through new POV characters, but through characters whose lived experiences set them utterly apart from preceding protagonists and whose insights were no less important, regardless of their station. The Other Wind, especially, finally explored the “Why’s” of Earthsea’s existence and magic. Overall, this is a fantastic series. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not sure how I never picked this up when I was younger, but I am very glad I got around to it now.