In the third book of the “Annals of the Western Shore,” the author of “A Wizard of Earthsea” completes what appears to be a fantasy trilogy for young adults. I hope that appearances are deceiving in this case. I hope this series will continue beyond this book!
In the second book of “Annals of the Western Shore,” gifted maker (poet) Orrec Caspro and his animal-whisperer wife Gry Barre come to the city of Ansul, fabled for its literature and its scholarly culture. But it seems they have come seventeen years too late: for Ansul has been conquered by the Alds, the people of the Asudar desert to the east. Unlike the people of Ansul, who revere countless gods and ancestral spirits, the Alds are devoted to the worship of one deity: the burning god Atth, whose word is to be spoken and never written, and who deems all other gods to be demons. To the Alds, all writing is demonic by definition.
This omnibus volume of the first three books of the “Hainish Cycle” is also available under the title “Worlds of Exile and Illusion”. I chose to lead with the simpler, more plainly descriptive title, mainly because it happened to be this edition that I borrowed from the public library. To be sure, it’s a bit of a misnomer. The first three installments in Ursula Le Guin’s multiple award-winning series are really more on the order of novellas, weighing in at 117, 113, and 160 pages, respectively.
Life is harsh in the northern uplands where Orrec Caspro grows up. The climate is cold. The farmers and serfs scratch an uneasy living out of indifferent soil. The land-owning families that lead them are divided by vicious feuds. And the most powerful among them, honored with the title Brantor, wield terrible powers. One family’s gift is calling to animals, which can be helpful when you’re training a horse or a dog, but is oftener used to deadly effect—in the hunt. And that’s one of the milder gifts. Other families’ gifts include turning people blind or deaf, twisting their limbs, enslaving their minds, and afflicting them with a slow wasting death.
When we last saw him in “The Farthest Shore”, wizard Ged was the Archmage and had just saved the world with the help of Earthsea’s young king. When we last saw her in “The Tombs of Atuan”, Tenar had just escaped from being the priestess and slave of a dark power, and had helped Ged restore a ring and a rune that kept the world in balance.
Winner of the 1970 Hugo Award for Best Novel, this book by the author of “A Wizard of Earthsea” more than deserves to be in the company of such books as “Stranger in a Strange Land,” “Dune,” “Foundation’s Edge,” “Ender’s Game,” “American Gods,” “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell,” “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” and “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”. It packs a powerful impact on both mind and heart. It is rich both in world-crafting inventiveness and in human detail. It is—it is, straight-up, devastatingly beautiful.