Crossing in mists

The Lathe of Heaven
by Ursula Le Guin,
SF Masterworks,
Gollancz 2001 (1971)

For me the sign of a good — or at least stimulating — novel is how much I think about it while I’m reading it and for some while after. Reading The Lathe of Heaven for the first time a couple of decades ago puzzled me, but I knew I’d want to return to it in due course. While there are still aspects that puzzle me I feel I have more of a foothold on the scree slope that Le Guin’s novel presents to us.

Part of the strength of this novel comes from the visual images that function as leitmotifs, along with the sense of place that the novel’s setting in Portland, Oregon provides, in which the three principal players and one or two other supporting characters act out their parts.

Buttressing all are quotes from Daoist texts and references to literature and popular culture which, though placed like bits of collage in the overall schema are actually integral to the author’s composition.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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The map fantastic

Contemporary sketch map of Rye (17th century?)

Contemporary novels, set in the real world, rarely if ever need a map included in the text. Historical novels occasionally offer one, especially if they show old territories or ancient names for places. Dystopian futures and distant planets do often require them and, ideally, so should fantasies: the more fantastical they are the more we need a cartographic guide, however sketchy, to orientate ourselves.

What happens though when either no map is available or, if one is offered, it’s so sketchy as to be next to useless?

The answer, for people like me, is to make my own from whatever clues are offered in the text, letting logic — and occasionally imagination — fill in the rest.

And that’s what I have been doing recently: tripping the map fantastic, as it were.

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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Witch Week Day 7: Ending / Beginning

That wraps up Witch Week 2018, and Lizzie and Chris have so enjoyed hosting this. We couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone who participated:

• Marlyn, of Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense, for her list of Ten Kick-Ass Heroines
Tanya, of Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, for her beautiful review of Ursula K Le Guin’s poetry collection, Finding My Elegy
Piotrek and Ola of Re-enchantment of the World, for their discussion of the women in the Witcher stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski
Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, who last year retired her Witch Week broom yet found time to review Madeline Miller’s Circe and participate in our discussion of Le Guin’s The Other Wind
people — too numerous to mention — who added comments and questions; posted pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs; and Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts

For anyone not yet sated, here are the links for the Emerald City Book Review Master Posts from earlier years:

Witch Week 2017: Dreams of Arthur
Witch Week 2016: Made in America
Witch Week 2015: New Tales from Old
Witch Week 2014: Diana Wynne Jones

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, when our theme will be … VILLAINS.

Witch Week Day 6: The Genius of Ursula K Le Guin

Le Guin’s fantasy fans will recognize these few lines from The Creation of Éa, Le Guin’s imagined mythology of Earthsea:

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying life;
bright the hawk’s flight
on the empty sky.

Some of us know that Le Guin wrote poetry before she wrote fiction, but how many of us have read beyond the fragments in her novels? Today, poet and guest blogger Tanya Manning-Yarde tantalizes us with a taste Le Guin’s poetry.

Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, is a poet and freelance writer from New York City. A graduate of Rutgers University and University at Albany, she recently worked as a copy editor and contributing writer for Bronze Magazine. She blogs at Tanya Manning-Yarde PhD (Instagram @every_watering_word_author) and is a freelance blogger for the annual Montclair Film Festival in Montclair, NJ.

Prior to pursuing a career as a writer, she was a high school English/Language Arts teacher, Assistant Professor, Instructional Coach, and an educational consultant. Her poems have been published at Literary Mama, Memoryhouse and Random Sample Review. Her first poetry collection, Every Watering Word, was published in 2017 (Wasteland Press).


Ursula K Le Guin’s Finding my Elegy: New and Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) is a compelling constellation of poems. Spanning fifty years, this collection chronicles selected early writings to contemporary pieces previously unpublished. Although well known for her science fiction writing, Le Guin was also a prolific poet, demonstrating versatility in verse and dexterity in the topics she pondered. This compilation illustrates Le Guin’s agility; her poetry is unfettered, unobligated, reliant neither on topical boundaries nor compliant with poetic structural apparatuses.

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Witch Week Day 5: Discussion of The Other Wind

THE OTHER WIND Discussion, Witch Week 2018

Lizzie, Lory and Chris approached this discussion of The Other Wind, the read-along book, not as a Q/A session, but rather as responses developing over time and in conversation with each other. Below: the edited version, with sections that match our Feminism+Fantasy theme. For the complete version (17 pages!), click here. And if you’ve read the book please join the conversation in the Comments.

Chapter I. Mending the Green Pitcher

LIZZIE: I’m glad to see Ged play a part in the action – to hear his reference to Tenar as his wife, and watch him only minimally regretful/angry about the loss of his powers.

CHRIS: Time enough for Ged to be better reconciled to his loss of power and status. He derives a quiet joy from mundane tasks and routines, but it is now Alder who is confused by Ged’s acceptance of a massive change of status and refusal to see Lebannen.

LORY: Ged has made a huge journey through the novels. In A Wizard of Earthsea, we meet him as a proud, insecure, sometimes arrogant young man, eager to acquire and display power. He matured into a wiser man who recognized the importance of balance and restraint. Now, having given away his extraordinary powers to restore balance to the world, he recognizes the value of the mundane and ordinary. It’s where all the magic comes from, after all, and what it should serve.

It makes me think about our own world and the power of simple acts: mending, tending, healing, caring. But I still wonder: Why does Ged refuse to meet the King or his fellow wizards? Is it really shame and regret? Or does he simply not fit into their world any more, would he feel too out of place?

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Something witchy this way comes

Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series is like Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, one of those secondary worlds that I’ve found I’ve needed to revisit every so often. I’m not the only one, I know, that — however familiar the outline plots — discovers something new each time I step into those universes, whether it’s an insight, a revelation or an emotion.

With the imminent arrival of Witch Week 2018, its theme this year of Fantasy+Feminism and focus on Ursula Le Guin (further details here and here, and also here), I’ve been re-immersing myself in Earthsea as I originally promised myself in a mini-review back in 2015.

Lizzie Ross and I will be co-hosting Witch Week (30 October to 06 November), with a week of posts celebrating the fantasy genre and Diana Wynne Jones.
We’ve lined up some exciting posts from guest bloggers, including a Top-Ten list of fantasy heroines, and a discussion of a Polish fantasy series.
AND don’t forget our readalong: Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book of her Earthsea series.

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Witch Week 2018 is coming…

Ursula Le Guin

Fellow blogger and author Lizzie Ross and I are co-hosting Witch Week 2018. This is a yearly event, first aired on Lory Hess‘s Emerald City Book Review, named after the third book of the same name in Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series.

The week runs from 30th October to 6th November, so it includes two great holidays: Halloween AND Guy Fawkes’ Day. The first is now mostly associated with witches and spooky goings-on, of course, while the second, commemorating the uncovering of a plot to blow up Parliament and King James, is an excuse to celebrate with bonfires and fireworks in the UK.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.

This year, our theme is Feminism + Fantasy, so our read-along book will be Ursula K Le Guin‘s The Other Wind, the final book in the Earthsea series. You have plenty of time to get a copy and read it (perhaps the rest of the series as well) before 30 October. Then join the conversation as we discuss what happens when Le Guin throws a feminist dynamic into the fantastic world of Earthsea.

We’ll have guest bloggers, including this event’s originator and previous host, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, and other features to be finalised and announced as we get closer to the event. We do hope you’ll join in!

Magic, menace and the mundane

Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)

As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.

This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the Tombs on Atuan: the former child priestess has married a Gontish farmer, had children, and has lately been widowed. But things remain awry; indeed, they may be getting worse.

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Righting the balance

Ursula Le Guin: The Farthest Shore
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin Books 1993 (1973)

When one comes to the end of a planned trilogy one always hopes for a sense of closure. But when I first read this there was also a sense of profound disappointment: yes, wrongs were righted, evil was overcome, but at what a cost! And yet, on a second reading and armed with hindsight, that disappointment was transmuted into acceptance as I started to understand the narrative arcs that applied to the whole trilogy.

With that understanding I think that the author’s intended ending was perfectly logical and absolutely in harmony with the preceding two novels. Because it also functions well enough as a standalone novel I can see how a new reader (and that was me, once upon a time) might feel bereft in the concluding pages; but Le Guin, in running counter to our expectations of a fantasy universe, showed what an original thinker she was and how her approach both overturned and reinvigorated the epic fantasy conventions of the time.

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Operating in the dark

Reconstruction of part of Knossos complex, Crete (Wikimedia Commons)

Ursula Le Guin: The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
in The Earthsea Quartet 1993 Penguin

Sequels are notoriously hard things to pull off; many authors struggle. Does one offer a second helping of the same ingredients on the grounds that readers seem to like more of the same, with just a few details changed for the sake of variety? Or does the writer go with something radically different and risk alienating fans of the original?

The second of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels goes with the second option, and certainly this is tough for some readers; but Le Guin is of that class of author who not only needs to challenge herself through her craft but to also avoid treading the same tracks as before. It’s a measure of her talent as a writer that she rises magnificently to the challenge while being a doggedly resolute pathfinder. So it’s entirely appropriate that much of The Tombs of Atuan involves the protagonists negotiating the complexities of a multicursal labyrinth with all its twisting passages and dead ends.

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Touchstones

Ladybird (credit: https://liveknowledgeworld.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/ladybird.jpg)

In the last three months we’ve lost two women who, between them, contributed hugely to the world of the human imagination. I say lost, but in truth we were privileged to have found them in the first place. One was a folklorist known for collecting childhood ephemera — both virtual and real — in Britain, the other a writer and poet who, through the genres of fantasy and science fiction, brought an anthropologist’s eye to considerations of how we function as individuals and as social animals.

These two outstanding individuals are of course Iona Opie and Ursula Le Guin.

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Paradise lost

Ursula K Le Guin: The Word for World is Forest
Introduction by Ken MacLeod
SF Masterworks: Gollancz 2014 (1972/6)

A novella I’ve had on my shelves for a couple of years, The Word for World is Forest is one that I was reluctant to begin, having understood that it was regarded as too polemical to be pure fiction. Completed in the aftermath of the terrible Vietnam war it was an expression of controlled rage against wanton killing, defoliation, poisoning and waste by a triumphalist aggressor against a supposedly inferior culture; Le Guin’s motivation was commendable but I’d had doubts sown over whether there was any edification to be had.

Having read it I can see the critical reservations all too clearly, but I can also appreciate its merits: a forward-moving narrative, a handful of clearly observed characters whose thought processes we observe, a sense of hope in amongst the more pessimistic aspects, imaginative touches that characterise both the genre and the universe that Le Guin has created in her Hainish Cycle. I can say that, yes, I was edified by the storyline, despite the darkness at its heart.

And here I must reference Joseph Conrad’s 1899 book Heart of Darkness, which later went on to inspire Coppola’s 1979 anti-war film Apocalypse Now. Similar themes run through both novellas — subjugation, maverick officers, exploitation — which I feel may be more than a coincidence. And, as the author makes clear in her own 1976 introduction, her London sojourn in the late 60s and involvement in protest demonstrations reflected, amongst other things, her own environmental concerns, concerns which I think Joni Mitchell’s 1970 song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ also encapsulated: “They took all the trees | And put them in a tree museum,” she sang, and “you don’t know what you’ve got | Till it’s gone,” adding “They paved paradise | And they put up a parking lot.”

So, is this a Garden of Eden story as the foregoing implies?

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Three collections, three mini-reviews

dragon
Life-size (?) dragon outside bedroom window, Miskin Manor, Cardiff

Here is a trio of mini-reviews of collections of short stories, novels and a novella. The idea is to whet your appetite for fuller reviews which I am planning over the months ahead of individual books in the two quartets focused on Earthsea and on Sally Lockheart, as well as the novella in Unexpected Magic.

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