Inspired by my students, I picked up a pack of Prismacolor brush tip markers on Saturday. To the left is my first attempt to get a feel for these new tools and what they can do. The image is from Yvonne Gilbert's cover for the 1984 paperback of The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin. It's the book my wife and I happen to be reading right now.
I didn't discover Ursula Le Guin until I was almost out of college. It's a pity. These are the books I should have been reading back in junior high instead of wasting all that time on "The Re-Reads of Shannara". Oh well. Each thing has its season.
What stands out to me about Le Guin's Earthsea, and The Tombs of Atuan in particular, is her strict minimalism. Not only is her word count and vocabulary perfectly restrained -not a word more than is needed- but her world and its characters are too. That's nothing short of phenomenal in a genre where over-writing is par for the course. Le Guin allows her characters to emerge from inference. We learn about them slowly, imperceptibly, by a what is said and what is not said, by what is done and what is not done. We learn about Earthsea and the Kargad Lands in the same way. There are no in-depth explanations, no authorial detours into mythology or politics. Unlike the works of Terry Brooks, however, it is not because these elements are not there. We know instinctively that Earthsea has the depth and reality of Middle Earth. Le Guin has simply mastered the art of only revealing the elements of her invented world that are absolutely necessary for the plot leaving the reader to infer the rest.
My wife pointed out a further stroke of genius that hadn't occurred to me before: Tenar, The Tombs of Atuan's lead character, is unlikable. This will be my forth or fifth trek through the novel, and I'd never thought about that; if I met Tenar in the real world, I wouldn't like her at all. Yet Le Guin, as a master fantasist keeps us reading page after angst-ridden page of Tenar's desert life. How does she do that? The answer seems to be two fold. As in Garth Nix's Clariel, Le Guin sets the reader a mystery and plays off of our desire to learn more. As in Clariel, but with a greater degree of mastery, The Tombs of Atuan also presents us with a sympathetic explanation of why the lead character is the way that she is. We understand that in the same circumstance we would be pushed toward becoming the same sort of person.