Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

The Baroque Cycle (2003-4) is a series of eight books, published for convenience in three volumes, entitled Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. In all, there’s around 2,500 pages – not an enterprise for the fainthearted. But we had a long spell of very hot weather in Adelaide, so I had plenty of time to read.

Stephenson has taken a number of characters and themes appearing in his 1999 novel Cryptonomicon and projected them back, as it were, into the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. So we have the ancestors of the modern characters: Daniel Waterhouse, a number of Shaftoes, some Comstocks, some von Hacklhebers and Enoch Root – though Stephenson says he is the same Enoch Root who appears in the twentieth century story. There are also the imagined interactions with real people, as in Leibnitz, Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Benjamin Franklin, to say nothing of Louis XIV, William of Orange and Caroline of Hanover. The preoccupations of many of these characters are similar to those of their twentieth century physical and intellectual descendants – ie philosophy, mathematics, code breaking, technology, war and weaponry and the functioning of trade and money. I really liked this echo effect, and would suggest reading Cryptonomicon before venturing further.

Stephenson describes the Cycle as having a science fiction mindset. I think what he means is that he has created an alternative world, rather than evoking the real historical one. But it is also an historical epic, full of ‘swordplay, swashbuckling and derring-do’. It takes place between 1664 and 1714, and is set at some point in the tale in almost every part of the then known world. This was a time of seething intellectual, religious, political and economic change across Europe, a ‘quicksilver world’, where ‘power came of thrift and cleverness and industry, not of birthright, and certainly not of Divine Right’. At least this is what the author seeks to illustrate through the activities of his characters. I don’t really know how historically correct it is, and obviously Stephenson can’t ignore history. Indeed, there is a huge amount of information on show about the details of all aspects of life– too much for some reviewers, who found it could be boring, as I occasionally did. And there are a number of historical processes, especially ones associated with technology, that hold the whole complex story together. But as his comment about science fiction shows, Stephenson isn’t really interested in imaginative historical reconstruction; he is at his best telling an exciting story, and for the most part, this is what he does. There are plagues, fires, battles, espionage, sea voyages, pirates, slavery, even the Spanish Inquisition and sundry other adventures, as well as love, loyalty, friendship, cruelty and treachery.

I like the way Stephenson writes. He hasn’t tried for a complete period effect in his alternate world; there are a number of quotes from writers of the time like Bunyan, Hobbs and Defoe to remind us of the real thing. But there are many sentence constructions and some word usages which give an historical feel to the writing, such as ‘oeconomy’, or ‘lanthorn’, ‘similitude’, or my favourite, ‘phant’sy’ or ‘phant’sied’, covering any of thought, considered, fancied or believed. Along-side this is a modern sensibility expressed in modern jargon, like ‘the commodities market’, ‘it looked like a win’, or the list of ‘weaponized farm implements’, ‘viz. war-sickles, combat-flails, assault-shovels and tactical-adzes’. ‘If it is funny, or it works’, Stephenson says, he is happy to put it in. But it’s also integral to his ‘science fiction’ mindset.

Indeed Stephenson is a very ‘take it or leave it’ sort of writer. He makes no concessions; you can almost see him thinking ‘what the hell, I like this so I’ll put it in.’ This makes his books very long, and to a degree, self-indulgent. Sometimes, indeed, the action is completely over the top. I think this tendency is more apparent in the Cycle than in the other of his books I’ve read. It also perhaps arises from the episodic nature of the story; each new section has to be filled out in detail with a different setting, different circumstances and different adventures, whatever the common themes (though this is less true in the third volume). The division into books and volumes is also problematic, in that if you want to know what happens, you need to read it all. The volumes aren’t stand-alone – though I note that all of them have individually won prizes, so perhaps others wouldn’t agree with me about that. Each book, and therefore each volume (except the last one) ends on a cliff hanger note for some character, rather like a TV show that is making sure you watch the next series. I did find I overdosed a bit, and had to take some breaks from reading for a while, particularly in the third volume, which seems overburdened with detail and hype. But I was always pleased to go back to it.

Because I so much like the way Stephenson writes, I’m always going to take pleasure in his books. But if you aren’t already a fan, I wouldn’t start with these three. You can read my posts on Cryptonomicon (1999) here, Anathem (2008) here and Reamde (2011) here.

You can read more about Neal Stephenson, including interviews about the books, on his web-site.



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At first I thought this book wasn’t worth writing about. But then I read a favourable review in the Australian literary magazine Meanjin, which made me reconsider my response. I still don’t like it much, but concede that this may say more about me than it says about the book.

The story is told in seven chapters, one for each of the main characters.  Overall, these build a picture of the stages in a family’s life, including the breakup of a marriage, teenage angst, sibling relationships, dealing with a difficult adolescent, having a young child, getting old and dying. But each chapter could be read as a short story. This is partly because they are all set at different times over a period of more than thirty years. It is also because they are discontinuous; what happens in several of them isn’t reflected in the other chapters. This has a stop-start effect; a chapter may build interest and tension, but it is dissipated at the end of the chapter. Amsterdam offers few social markers by which to place the family; they live in an indeterminate landscape, and their lives seem bland. There’s nothing wrong with not specifying a social setting; it’s a tactic that can focus attention on individual feelings and personal relationships. But I don’t think as described here, feelings and personal relationships can carry the weight. Amsterdam writes well, but not that well.

The main character, in so far as there is one, is Alec, who plays a part in all the stories, his own coming at the end. Alec has magic powers, or perhaps rather he has the power to make other people discover powers in themselves – like becoming invisible, or flying. His aim in conferring these powers is to give his family what it needs – a chance of fulfilment. ‘Right now,’ he says, ‘we’re in the wrong version of our lives. Too much security, too little freedom … All we have to do is pick a different story, one where we get what we want.’ Really? It’s not clear that the rest of the family are necessarily better off – or better – because of their powers, which, incidentally, only seem to operate in their own chapter. Ruth, for example, feels she had ‘evidently endured some sort of accident in her brain’ when she finds she can read other people’s thoughts. Alec realises that he has to be careful about altering reality: ‘One ripple rushed into another. Without ever intending it, there could be waves, curling larger and larger, pulling all of them far from solid land.’ But this doesn’t seem to stop him.

I don’t mind stories where characters have magic powers, or where we get first one then another outcome because of some minor change in circumstances – see for example my review of Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. But here, I just found it irritating. What is the point of these magic powers? You can’t just ‘pick a different story’ – that’s the whole point of the web of relationships that make up a family. But I don’t think this is the point that Amsterdam is making. In fact I’m not sure what point he is making.

And this is where I wonder if I’m not looking for something that other readers might not find necessary, or even desirable – for some sort of rational outcome beyond the quirky view of the world offered by magic realism. The writer in Meanjin says that the central premise of the novel is that ‘sometimes it takes extraordinary power to survive the everyday’. And maybe Amsterdam is showing this by bestowing eccentric powers like flying and materialising through walls on his characters. Perhaps the absence of much colour in the lives of the family members when the magic isn’t operating is a deliberate way of contrasting the mundane with the extraordinary. Other readers might find this delightful, and not at all irritating. The Meanjin writer also says that in Amsterdam’s work, ‘as much meaning exists in what is unsaid as in the stories themselves, and bestows us with the power to fill in the blanks.’ Perhaps I’m just not good at reading what’s left unsaid.

Steven Amsterdam is an American who now lives and writes in Melbourne. He sounds like a really nice bloke. You can read more about him here. This is his second novel. His first, Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009) won The Age Book of the Year (fiction), and this one, which was published in 2011, was short listed for this, and short or long listed for several other literary prizes. So critical opinion is against me.  It’s an easy read – try it for yourself.

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The Change is a trilogy of fantasy stories by Sean Williams, probably aimed at the young adult market. I’m not a young adult and I’m not usually drawn to fantasy stories, but Williams caught my interest because he is a South Australian and lives in Adelaide, as I do. It’s always good to support a local. Besides, I enjoyed the first one, so kept reading.

The first of the trilogy is The Stone Mage and the Sea (2001). Sal and his father Gershom arrive at a small town on the coast of a country ruled by the Sky Wardens. The Sky Wardens’ authority comes from magical powers and practices known collectively as ‘the Change’, aptitude for which is usually inherited, but can be learnt. Those showing ability are taken by the Sky Wardens to be further trained. Why is Sal’s father so fearful of them? What is he seeking, or what is he running from? It’s not hard to guess that Sal possesses these powers, though he isn’t yet aware of it; the ‘coming into powers’ story is a common trope of the fantasy genre. But I think it is well done, both in terms of Sal’s own development, and of the fantasy world that Williams has created – both like and unlike present times.

The second in the trilogy is The Sky Warden and the Sun (2002), and continues where the previous book left off. I wouldn’t recommend reading them out of order. Sal is now on the run from the Sky Wardens, and with a companion, Shilly. They are making for the interior, which is ruled by the Stone Mages, who also use the Change, but are not on good terms with the Sky Wardens. There he hopes to learn how to use his power, for without this knowledge, as one character explains, ‘You impose your will upon the world like a poor blacksmith wields a hammer: with unnecessary force, and at great risk to those around you.’ As in most stories built around flight and pursuit, Sal encounters both assistance and treachery, good luck and misfortune and on his journey. I found the country he travels through reminiscent of outback South Australia ‘magnificent in a bleak, time worn way.’ The writing is mostly plain and unadorned, but there are some striking images, as when someone is ‘tugging the reins and cracking the whip over the conversation until she had broken its spirit.’

The Storm Weaver and the Sand (2002) is the third and final book. Sal and Shilly find themselves in the Haunted City, the home of the Sky Wardens. The city has been built in the spaces between older skyscrapers, now the home of ghosts, that belong to a time before some undefined cataclysm. Sal and Shilly are supposed to be learning more about the ‘theory, illusion and actuality’ that underlie the Change. But they are both desperate to escape the Sky Wardens, and are prepared to invoke the power of other non-material forces – ‘fundamental properties of this world that evade definition’ – to get away from the city. But may this have unforeseen consequences? Is there such a thing as ‘fate’, Sal wonders, and if so, can you escape it? If you are prepared to suspend disbelief, Williams has created an exciting story, with interesting and likeable characters. He is also good at atmosphere, especially in creating a sense of dread: ‘In the Haunted City, humans were like rats in the walls, cowering round the base of buildings they could only marvel at, never inhabit.’ I think the resolution of the story has a touch of deus ex machina about it, but that’s something I get very picky about, and there are some markers along the way that prepare for it, so don’t let that put you off.

One of the reasons that fantasy fiction is not taken too seriously is that being able to do magic can seem like cheating – you can get away with anything in terms of plot. But the use of magic also imposes restrictions, the most important of which is that the fantasy world must be consistent. And I think that consistency is something that Williams has achieved across all three of these books. Sal and Shilly exist in a fully imagined world, which the reader can enter and enjoy. Williams is clearly a writer of some substance, having several times won an Aurealis Award for works of speculative fiction written by an Australian citizen – though not for this trilogy. Try them on the grandchildren.

Sean Williams is a prolific writer. You can read more about him here.

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The Gift (2002) is the first book of what was initially conceived of as the Treesong Trilogy, but grew into the Pellinor Quartet; it just goes to show how stories can take on a life of their own. This quartet fits squarely into the fantasy genre, and reading The Gift (called The Naming in the USA) reminded me of just how much fantasy writing draws on common themes and even plot devices. In this review I’m going to mention some of these and may reveal rather more of the story than I usually do; if you don’t want to know what happens, look away now.

As a young girl, Maerad is sold into slavery with her mother, who has since died. She sees no hope of escape. But one day a stranger, Cadvan, perceives that she has the same sort of magic power he has, though she doesn’t know it. He is a Bard, one of a number of people who have ‘the Gift’, which gives them certain powers, the most important of which is ‘the Speech’. ‘It is the source of our Knowing and much of our might,’ Cadvan explains. He decides he must take Maerad to Norloch, the most powerful School of the Bards, and the book covers the difficulties and adventures they have getting there.

A number of themes in this book are found in other fantasy literature. Two other stories in which a young person finds they have magic powers immediately come to mind – the Earthsea Quartet, which I reviewed earlier, and the Harry Potter books. Harry Potter shares with Maerad a degree of maltreatment before their powers are discovered, though living under the stairs might not be in the same league as slavery. Still, both are a version of the Cinderella story. Magic power is innate, but young wizards have to learn to use it. The older wizards – or Mages or Bards -Ged in Earthsea, Cadvan in the Pellinor stories and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter stories – have all at some point flirted with the Dark, and have to live with the consequences. The younger generation must learn responsibility too; these are all coming of age stories.

In the best fantasy tradition, Croggon has created an imaginary world with its own landscape and people, language and history. Cadvan serves the Light, but must contend with the forces of Darkness. At some time in the past, an evil Bard, known as the Nameless, conquered the earth, and imposed the Great Silence. He was subsequently overthrown, but now evil is creeping back, and Cadvan believes that the Nameless has returned. Some Bards have been corrupted; to those who can see, they look skeletal.

Sound familiar? There are certainly similarities to Voldermort and the Death Eaters in Harry Potter, and echoes of the Force and the Dark Side in Star Wars.  The return of a previously defeated Dark Lord with a group of evil and powerful acolytes also strongly recalls Sauron and the nine Nazgul in The Lord of the Rings. In fact it was of Tolkien that I was constantly reminded when reading The Gift. In addition to these general themes, there are some quite specific plot similarities. Cadvan and Maerad pass through a deserted underground city and find themselves in a hidden woodland realm, ruled over by a queen with magical powers. She has kept her people secret and safe, but now sees the coming of the two Bards as a sign that her land cannot hope to remain so if the Nameless prevails. This is very similar to the position of Galadriel, whose power has previously kept her woodland realm of Lorien secret and safe, and for whom the advent of the Ring means doom. There is also a calculating and ambitious Bard who betrays the trust of other Bards; he thinks he can beat the Nameless at his own game, just as the wizard Saruman does in The Lord of the Rings, and with the same result.

But over and above these similarities, some of the language is deeply reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings. Just a couple of examples. Galadriel says to Frodo: ‘Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footsteps of Doom?’ The Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘It may be that the doom we all fear will overtake us, no matter how we struggle against it.’ At their parting, Galadriel gives Frodo a star glass: ‘It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.’ At their parting, the Queen says to Cadvan and Maerad: ‘And Light blooms the brighter in the darkest places.’ Gandalf says of Saruman: ‘He will not serve, only command. He lives now in terror of the shadow of Mordor, and yet he still dreams of riding the storm. Unhappy fool! It will devour him.’ And the Bard Nerlec says of the ruthless Enkir: ‘But in his arrogance he has forgotten the might of the Dark, and it has eaten him up, even as he thought he directed its ways. Cunning fool!’

Some of these similarities are probably inherent in the fantasy genre. Most fantasy stories are a quest involving a battle between good and evil. Many involve young people coming to terms with magic power, either their own, or that inherent in some object, like Frodo’s ring. The language of these stories is often stately and a little archaic – such words or phrases as ‘doom’, or ‘fell’ (as in horrid) or ‘it is written’ come naturally. But I think in this case Croggon is consciously paying homage to Tolkien, who is, after all, the master. The story as it unfolds in the other books of the quartet doesn’t follow the story of The Lord of the Rings; Croggon creates a fantasy world that is fully her own. Read them and see what you think.

You can read more about this Australian writer and her other three Pellinor books here.

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Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

I really like the way Neal Stephenson writes: it is clever and funny. But Anathem (2008) is a book I have to work at. I think the effort is worthwhile, but I’d understand if others didn’t.

I agreed in an earlier post with Margaret Atwood that her futuristic novel Oryx and Crake should be seen as speculative fiction, because it takes what is already happening and extends it, whereas science fiction changes the scientific rules to allow things that are not physically possible. On that basis, Anathem should be science fiction, but the boundaries of science and technology are in such flux that I hesitate to say that the scenario in this book is not physically possible. Quantum Theory? Philosophy? Cosmology? It has all these and more – and it is a great adventure story.

The setting for the book is the planet Arbre, which, Stephenson notes in a foreword to the reader, is in many ways similar to Earth. This planet has a recorded history longer than that of the Earth but some events in it recall those on Earth. We are now living in what in Arbre’s history is known as the Praxic Age, which was nearly three thousand seven hundred years before the events in the story. For thousands of years, groups of men and women who wish to study theorics – science and philosophy – have chosen to become avouts and live together in concents. At earlier days they were at the forefront of technological advances in areas such as sub atomic physics and gene sequencing.  Since the Terrible Times, which occurred at the end of the Praxic Age, the avouts have lived almost entirely closed off from the rest of the world, following an ascetic way of life with little modern technology.  The names of many recognisable things in this world are different – jeejah for mobile phone/network browser and Reticulum for the internet being two of my favourites. There is a comprehensive glossary, and key terms are defined in the text as extracts from The Dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000. Stephenson has created a complete and complex society, both inside and outside the walls of the concert, in a way that I find quite brilliant.

The story follows the doings of Fraa Erasmus, first in his Concent of Saunt (as in savant) Edhar, then after he is ‘evoked’ – taken out of the concent – by the secular power to help meet a crisis threatening the planet’s future.  Erasmus is an endearing character and Stephenson is a master story teller; there’s lots of exciting action to enjoy, as well as the interest of the world he has created.

I do, nevertheless, have two related problems with this book. First, it is, like all Stephenson’s books, very long, coming in at around 900 pages. Does it really need to be so long? Is this self indulgence on the author’s part? Second, some of the length comes from fairly protracted philosophical discussions among the characters. These primarily cover the views of philosophers that can be recognised as Plato and Aristotle and their successors. There is the notion ‘that the objects and ideas that humans perceive and think about are imperfect manifestations of pure, ideal forms that exist in another plane of existence’.  Or, ‘Put simply’, says someone on the other side of the argument, ‘… language, communication, indeed thought itself, are the manipulations of symbols to which meanings are assigned by culture – and only by culture.’ There is also discussion of consciousness and language, and of various mathematical concepts, to say nothing of configuration space. This is a bit of a stretch for me. It would be bad enough if the real names were used, but I find having to remember which argument goes with which avout saunt distractingly difficult. Are these discussions really necessary to the plot, or are they just Stephenson having a bit of fun? They certainly slow down the pace. I can see the general relevance, but struggle with much of the detail.

Someone has created a Wiki page where everything in the story is given an earthly equivalent. This is quite interesting, but I find there is pleasure in teasing out for myself the ways in which words sound similar to other words, yet mean something rather different. The physics of how the same matter can develop in divergent ways to produce outcomes that are different but still similar is at the heart of the book, so Stephenson’s play with language mirrors this in a very pleasing way.  

And his command of the technology he has (I assume) invented is awesome.

You can read more – though not a lot more – about Stephenson here. If you haven’t come across him before, you can read my earlier post on his book Cryptonomicon (1999) here.

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This is one of my favourite books, which is excuse enough to write about it. But if I needed another reason, it would be that Pullman is one of the writers short-listed for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, and this is his major work. Its title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, whereMilton refers to the Creator’s power to fashion other worlds from the dark materials found in the abyss – ‘the womb of nature and perhaps her grave’. For this is a book about other worlds, and the nature of the abyss.

Actually it is three books – Northern Lights (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), brought together into one volume. (And perhaps confusingly, the first book was also published as The Golden Compass, which is moreover the title of the film of that book.) It is no doubt possible to read them separately, but they form a continuous adventure, and it is best to read them as such.

Twelve year old Lyra lives in anOxfordthat exists in a universe parallel to our own. It is recognisably the same place, but there are significant differences. Physics, for example, is known as experimental theology, and the Church holds far greater sway than in our world. People have animal (or bird or insect) companions called dǽmons, which are best described as physical expressions of their souls.  But when children start to disappear, taken, it is rumoured to the far North, the reaction is the same as in our world; parents unite to get them back. When Lyra’s friend Roger disappears, she vows to find him, and becomes part of the expedition. And then there is the mysterious substance ‘dust’. What has it to do with the disappearance of the children?

In the second book, Will Parry, a boy from our universe, meets Lyra when they both stray into a third universe. He is looking for his father; she is looking for someone to help her understand ‘dust’. Will becomes the possessor of a knife which can cut gateways into other worlds; others want it too. Lyra is also pursued; it seems she has some as yet unknown importance in the great war developing between the Church and secular forces. This war forms a background to the further travails of Will and Lyra in the third book, though other characters, like the scientist Mary Malone, creator of the amber spyglass, also play important roles.

But this is far more than an exciting adventure story. For one thing, there is the depth and complexity of Pullman’s imagined worlds. Just listing some of the creatures that inhabit them gives an idea of the richness of Pullman’s invention. As well as the dǽmons, there are armoured bears, angels, witches, ghosts, mulefa, Gallivespians, harpies, cliff ghasts and spectres, all fully drawn and functioning beings. There is also a wealth of imaginative detail in the technology that operates in these worlds, from the alethiometer – the truth teller, or golden compass – the subtle knife and amber spyglass to the anbaric lights and projecting lantern. Then there is ‘dust’ – elementary particles, ‘Shadows’ or ‘sraf’ – which exists in all worlds. What is it, and why is it so important?  There is a fully thought out cosmology underlying the story, and sometimes dominating it.Pullman rejects organised religion, but has a strong sense of morality and spiritual values.

And all this is found in what is characterised as a children’s book. The distinction might relate to the fact that the story is mostly carried forward by Will and Lyra, rather than simply being about them. One critic claims thatPullmanhas given us a new way of writing for children, and this may be so. But I’m not sure it’s worth making a distinction between children’s and adults’ literature inPullman’s case. Each volume separately might just qualify as ‘for children’, but taken as whole, the complexity of the vision and the imaginative power of the work defy such classification. I think adults will read the story as eagerly as children, and be no less challenged by it than by any other work of literature.

You can find out more aboutPullman, and his other writing here. His debate with the Archbishop of Canterbury over religion can be found here.

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I tried the second book of Stephen Donaldson’s First Chronicles of Thomas Covernant (The Illearth War, 1977) but it’s really not my thing. So I turned instead to Ursula Le Guin, hoping to have my faith in the fantasy genre renewed. I wasn’t disappointed. The Quartet is a classic. The books that make it up – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore and Tehanu – are really children’s stories, but somehow reading them together in one volume gives a coherence that is adult in its appeal.

Earthsea is a group of islands inhabited by diverse peoples, surrounded by uninhabited seas. Its people are mostly farmers, merchants or artisans but a few are wizards, trained in the high arts on the island of Roke. They (mostly) observe the Balance and the Pattern which keep magic and ordinary things in equilibrium, as unwisely used, a wizard’s power is dangerous. It should ‘follow knowledge and serve need’. But there are older powers and fallible or malevolent wizards that disrupt the balance; all four books are in different ways about these.

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) tells how the wizard Ged comes from boyhood into his full power, and how in his arrogance he causes a Nameless spirit to escape into the world. Magic power is based on the power of naming; Ged must find the name of this spirit in order to return it to the land of the dead and restore the balance of his own life. In The Tombs of Atuan (1971) Tenar becomes Priestess of the Tombs, dedicated to the service of the Nameless Ones. In the darkness of the Undertomb, where no man is allowed to go, she is outraged to find a somewhat older Ged, who is looking for the other half of the Ring of Erreth-Akbe, which if made whole has the power to bring peace to the islands. In The Farthest Shore (1972), Ged, now Archmage of Roke, and the young prince Arren, undertake a mighty journey to find out why magic is no longer working properly. And in the much later Tehanu (1990), some of the characters and themes of the earlier books are further explored. It is this last book that gives the quartet its unity and makes it more than a series of separate children’s stories.

Le Guin writes simply but lyrically, with a sort of high seriousness appropriate to a fantasy epic. Here Ged is explaining the Balance. ‘Do not you see, Arren, how an act is not, as young men think, like a rock that one picks up and throws, and it hits or misses, and that’s the end of it. When that rock is lifted the earth is lighter, the hand that bears it heavier. When it is thrown, the circuits of the stars respond, and where it strikes or falls the universe is changed. On every act the balance of the whole depends.’

Le Guin has created a fully coherent world for her stories. It is pre-industrial in its physical setting; people mostly live on what they can grow or make, leavened sometimes with a bit of magic. It is also a hierarchical and paternalistic world. Men rule in both the temporal and the magic spheres. Only men can become wizards; those who don’t meet the demanding standards of the school on Roke become sorcerers. (And before you start making comparisons with Hogwarts, think which came first.) Women with magic power only become village witches. There is a saying ‘weak as women’s magic’. Wizards and sorcerers are highly respected. But women with power are distrusted; there is also a saying ‘wicked as women’s magic’. In the last book, Tehanu, Le Guin offers a challenge to these assumptions through the fates of Ged and Tenar, and also the abused child, Therru. The humanity of this story makes it as much an adult book as is The Lord of the Rings.

It is not surprising to find that Ursula Le Guin, now over 80, maintains a strong interest in issues of feminism, ecology and the free speech issues around Wikileaks. You can follow up on her wide range of interests on her amazing web pages here. Details of her career and other writing are summarised here.

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