This second book in the Earthsea Cycle does feature the heroic young wizard Ged (a.k.a. Sparrowhawk) who is dear to all who have read A Wizard of Earthsea. Dont worry. But also, dont be surprised when he doesn’t turn up in the first half of the book. For this tale is told from the point of view of Arha (the Eaten One), the current reincarnation of the First Priestess of the Tombs of the Nameless Ones, a.k.a. the Dark Powers.
Arha is a young girl, still in her teens, but she was taken from her family at a young age and raised to perform the cruel rites of the worship of those nasty, ancient spirits. Few worshipers come to their temple any more, since the lands of Kargad fell under the sway of a line of so-called God-Kings. But the unbroken line of priestesses, who are supposedly the same nameless woman reborn time after time, continues to splash blood on the tombs, and dance before the vast empty throne under the crumbling portico, and sacrifice the bodies of traitors and criminals who are sent by the God-King for punishment.
Honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for having trouble sympathizing with the high priestess of such an evil, monstrous cult. But poor Arha doesn’t know any better, and more to the point, all choice has been taken from her, since as a small child her soul was given to the Nameless Ones. Nevertheless, there is a streak of gentleness and decency in this Arha, who has forgotten that her born name was Tenar.
She takes her business very seriously, fiercely believing in and trying to uphold the dignity of the gods she servesto the point of wishing death and destruction on the infidel. But she also shudders and has nightmares over the slaughter of the criminals sent to her for sacrifice. And finally, when the wizard Ged sneaks into the Undertomb, attempting to steal the lost half of an ancient talisman, Arha cannot bring herself to destroy himeven when he is in her power. Indeed, she risks everything, including the wrath of the God-Kings high priestess Kossil, to spare Geds life. Until finally, the two of them must escape together, or not at all.
Like the book that went before it, The Tombs of Atuan is a hair-raising story of light fighting to overcome darkness, in a fantasy-land of islands scattered across a great sea, and warring armies, and vast powers, and magic, and dragons, and a civilization whose memories live in songs and legends. Vividly detailed, vastly conceived, it is also so trim & compact that it achieves the impact of a 500-page book in less than 200 pages. A noteworthy achievement! The saga continues in The Farthest Shore.