Alright kids, in keeping with tradition, I'd like to highlight two books in a series and make an argument that the second, less popular book is superior to the first (see my earlier defense of Speaker for the Dead in favor of Ender's Game).
I don't know why I do it. Maybe it seems unfair that such great books are overlooked just because they weren't written first? Or maybe, as I believe, after the author has gone through all the hard work of building a world in the first book, they can at last write the story they really wanted to tell in the second book, resulting in a far better story. Just a theory.
I want to talk about Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle; a fantasy series that begins with the eponymous A Wizard of Earthsea. The series started as a trilogy, and you'll sometimes see it incorrectly described that way online, but Le Guin had since expanded it into a quartet with the publication of Tehanu. (Edit: Writer Janet Ursel was kind enough to alert me that there's actually a fifth book as well! The Other Wind.) Strangely, I've only read the first, second, and fourth books, but not the third (Edit: or fifth...). Guess I need to put them on my list.
A Wizard of Earthsea is one of my favorite fantasy books. I love the world, which had a more mythological tone than high fantasy. I thought its concept of magic was cool when I was a kid, and then when I learned about semiotics in high school, the significance of Earthsea's magic system blew my mind. The idea that you can control anything as long as you know it's one true name (when sign = signifier), well, that just makes sense to a bookworm (or a fantasy minded linguist).
Our hero, Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, studies this magic of words and mistakenly believes he has mastered the language. That hubris almost kills him when he summons an evil spirit into the world that he cannot control. He spends the rest of the book sailing about the archipelago of Earthsea to understand this dark magic he has unleashed, simultaneously hunting it and running from it. It's a beautifully written story, short and sweet. The world-building is particularly strong, as you'd expect from Le Guin. I found it a lot more interesting than the Tolkien-imitations that tend to dominate the fantasy genre.
But A Wizard of Earthsea isn't perfect. It touches on this great sense of evil, but I always found its shapelessness to be slightly unsatisfactory. The book also meanders, especially towards the end. To be honest, I can't even recall the conclusion beyond the most basic plot. It was just a little too abstract for me.
Regardless of these shortcomings, I enjoyed the book, and as soon as I could, I used my babysitting money to purchase the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan (I was probably around 13 or 14 when I first read them).
As the second book in the series, The Tombs of Atuan does a lot of things that tend to annoy readers, which probably explains its lack of popularity. First, it introduces a totally new character, Arha, who is unrelated to anyone in the previous book. Arha is the current and reincarnated priestess of "The Nameless Ones," an almost forgotten religion of ancient gods who existed before the world had a form.
Second point against this book? She lives in an isolated nunnery with other novices, old virgins, and eunuchs. I'm sure every boy who ever picked up this book read that setting and put the book right back down again. Maybe I'm stereotyping, but I've found that boys don't like to read books about girls, not at least until after they've grown up a little.
Then it takes Ged almost three quarters of the book to show up. No one who thinks they're reading a direct sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea is going to push that far through the story to find out whether their original hero reappears.
But that's the trick, Tombs is not really a direct sequel to Earthsea.
Despite everything that is working against it, I don't remember struggling with The Tombs of Atuan at all. The opening chapters were strange enough and the writing simple enough to pull me right into the story. I liked Arha, who was spoiled and haughty, but also lonely and increasingly frightened. I was interested in the mysterious tombs of the ancient ones, and the modern temples of the god-king and other cults. Where did these religions come from? Why was one dying and the other thriving? And like Earthsea, Tombs is a coming of age novel and has a school-ish air to it, which I always enjoy. Arha spends her time learning the rituals of the high priestess and the secrets of the labyrinth that lies buried deep in the earth beneath the tombs. How can you not enjoy that?
You could read Tombs all by itself, having never read Earthsea, and I don't think the story would suffer at all. Ged is a catalyst in the novel, practically a plot device, but the story is really all about Arha. What do the Gods mean to her? And what does she mean to them? That's part of the mystery and it takes a while to really understand her.
Just because Ged isn't the star of Tombs doesn't mean it isn't good, if not better without him. Throughout the Earthsea cycle, I don't know if we even understood Ged. What motivated him? Why did he feel compelled to fix his mistake? But I felt like I knew Arha by the end of Tombs, and felt for her.
I've subsequently loaned this book out so many times and people never return it, so I've had to buy it again and again to ensure I always have a copy ready to reread whenever the mood strikes me, which is fairly often. It's a great book, overlooked, but special.
What do you think? Have you read The Tombs of Atuan? Did you like it? Or is the classic, A Wizard of Earthsea better?