Ursua K. LeGuin wrote one of the world’s most beautiful fantasy trilogies: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore. There is something beautifully elemental about these books: images and writing stripped down to the essentials, sky, water, stone, wind. The writing is spare, minimal, beautiful, deep. Each book stands firmly on its own two feet. The first has a protagonist, the second has a different protagonist, the third has the two come together. There are three separate stories, and an overarching story that the three books tell together. Probably because of the change of protagonist, the middle book does not suffer as many second-of-threes do from being the soggy middle, needed for overall plot development but not very interesting on its own. The Tombs of Atuan is in many ways my very favorite of the three.
Then, I am sorry to say, U.K.LeG., after a span of years, wrote several sequels. They are—how do I say it? They embody important principles of social organization and gender equity. They are politically correct in their explorations of issues of justice. I admire these principles enormously. Unfortunately the novels are lifeless. Character, plot, the beauty of the trilogy’s writing– all sacrificed to the political novel at its worst. With its presentation of alternative worlds and social structures, speculative fiction lends itself especially well to these kinds of explorations, and I highly recommend Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, Jr. for successful novels that incorporate these elements. But not books four and five of the Earthsea trilogy. It just doesn’t work.
I was thinking about this because I recently finished another wonderful fantasy trilogy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. Kay is a poet and perhaps for this reason his trilogy is lusher, more romantic—there is far more stuff to it than we find in The Earthsea Trilogy, as well as far more characters. He pulls myths from many different traditions into his richly imagined world. I especially enjoyed his beautiful retelling of the story of King Arthur, woven throughout the three books as a subplot.