Pros: imaginative, emotive, lyrical, action-packed...did I forget anything?
This is a tale of the deeds of the greatest of all wizards, the Archmage Ged, a tale of the days before his deeds were sung in all of Earthsea, of the days before he came to his greatness. This is the tale of how he became more than a mighty sorcerer. This is the story of how he became a man.
Once upon a time there was a boy named Duny. A farm boy from a tiny village on the Isle of Gont, he was quick-witted and fun-loving, and hated to do his chores. Then one day he spoke a nonsense rhyme overheard from his aunt, the village witch, and the goats he was herding came to him and crowded about him, and ran with him all the way to the village. On that day, the witch-woman sensed the greatness in him, and began teaching him the ways of magic. And in no time at all, he knew all she did, and more besides, and his friends dubbed him Sparrowhawk, because he was master of all the birds and beasts of the field.
But only when young Sparrowhawk saved the village from pillaging invaders with a crafty and mighty working did the full measure of his power become clear. And Ogion the Silent, the wizard who tamed the earthquake in days past, came to make him a prentice, and gave him his true Name, Ged. And soon Ged felt he had outgrown his quiet master, and was sent to the Isle of Roke, to learn from the Masters of the School of Magic. And Ged learned swiftly and grew strong, and it was often remarked that his was a talent not seen in generations, and that the boy was destined for greatness. And Ged heard these words, and was much pleased, for he was prideful of his skills, and being unable to forget his humble beginnings, he was envious of the sophistications and cleverness of others, and fearful of being thought a fool , and enjoyed proving himself the master.
And these were the traits that ensured his downfall. For one day Ged was challenged by a rival boy to prove his mastery of magic, and he overreached himself, reciting a spell old and dark and powerful, and calling into the world a nameless shadow of evil from the lands beyond. Then the peace of Roke was shattered, and the Archmage perished saving Ged from his folly, and the shadow escaped into the world.
And though Ged became a mighty wizard and performed great deeds, always the shadow followed, just one step behind him, performing evil deeds, and none could long stand against it. And in the end, Ged knew, he alone must face it...
That's the story told in Ursula Le Guin's 1968 book, A Wizard of Earthsea, a book beloved by children and adults alike for over five decades.
Is it any good?
Heck yeah: this is one of the greatest fantasy stories ever told. It's filled to bursting with imagination and told with the voice of a true storyteller (and the rest of Le Guin's Earthsea tales, many of which also feature Ged, are nothing to sneeze at either, and always manage to say something new, which is refreshing in a world full of same-old same-old fantasy). The wuthor employs beautiful poetic language, with very much the feel of myths and legends and epics from the days of yore (and indeed, tale-telling and ballads are an important part of the culture of the lands of Earthsea, and scatterings of legends and fragments of poetry are to be found throughout the book). It's almost impossible to read this stuff and not form a vivid picture of the tale in your mind. That's not to say that Le Guin overdescribes – she may set the scene perfectly in your mind's eye, but your vivid picture may be nothing like mine.
And Le Guin achieves this vividness with almost unbelievable efficiency (or economy, or value-for-words, or however you want to describe it). In only a couple hundred pages, she manages to cram in a ton of action and adventure ranging across a fully-realised world, with a history and a geography and a feel all its own, and populated with characters that feel real and are often likeable – folks like Ged's mentor Ogion the Silent, his best friend and fellow mage Vetch, It's a world of witches and dragons, and lords and ladies, and sailors and farmers, and Old Dark Powers from before the world was made. And there are different cultures and societies that actually feel different, and people of all sorts and colours, and they're not all jumbled together like demihuman races in a typical fantasy setting, but they are all people.
Moreover, Le Guin manages to intriduce a coherent magic system, which operates according to strict rules but doesn't seem as legalistic as, say, the Dungeons and Dragons system. Even where particular rules and applications in the narrative may be new, they flow logically from the basics taught to Ged (and through him, to us). And the magic system is an intricate part of the world of Earthsea, where Names matter, and knowing the true essence of a thing gives one some measure of power over it (Earthsea, incidentally, in the Old Tongue of wizards and dragons, is Tolk-Inien, which is a nice little gesture of solidarity with the fantasy fraternity on Le Guin's part, and subtly done as well). And at the heart of it is the Equilibrium that must be maintained – true mages know that it's better to let the world be than to force one's will upon it. And the more powerful the mage, the tighter the path he must walk, until at last choice disappears, and one does as one must.
Won't somebody please think of the children?
A Wizard of Earthsea is a children's fantasy tale (at least primarily). Even so, it's a grim tale, full of fatalism and dark quests and some parts that are actually a little scary. But there are moments of humour when characters are talking and laughing and it feels totally unforced, and there are true friendships to provide some comfort. And at it's heart it's a tale of growing up, of finding a place in the world, and of living up to responsibilities. And it still manages to enteratin. What kid could ask for more?
The Final Verdict
No jokes, this is one of the best fantasy stories ever told, and one that's perfect for kids and adults alike. Basically, if you like fantasy, you'll like this. And if you like good fantasy, you'll love it.