• The Good: Underground labyrinths, ancient dark powers, a powerful but trapped little girl, and a starving wizard thief
  • The Bad: None, but beware some dark imagery
  • The Literary: One of the best classic fantasies for kids!

In this second book of the Earthsea series, five-year-old Tenar is declared to be the High Priestess reborn. She leaves her family behind to serve the “Nameless Ones” and become guardian of the Tombs of Atuan. At fourteen, only Tenar, or Arha, as she is now called, is permitted to travel the passageways of the dark underground labyrinth. Isolated from her peers and encouraged by her priestesses, Arha learns to be hard and cruel, especially after calling for the murder of three men who enter the forbidden tombs.

The previous book told of Ged, an arrogant boy who grows up to be a wizard. There’s kings and dragons and far away lands and magic, especially naming magic, but instead of the traditional tropes of good versus evil, the wizard must learn from his own mistakes to save the world. I especially love how the act of naming gives power to the world around us and teaches subtle lessons of knowledge, power, and silence.

Compared to the first novel, The Tombs of Atuan is a quieter book, focused on a little girl in a very small geographic area in the north of Earthsea. I love the evocative images of a dark and claustrophobic forbidden labyrinth, ancient religious traditions, including cruel bloody sacrifices, all to appease the Dark Old gods.

I am amazed by how such simple prose in such a short book can carry so much weight. Le Guin is teaching some very adult lessons in these kids books, which is fantastic. From Ged, we learned that you cannot outrun youself, and that you must embrace the light and darkness within. From Tenar, we learn that evil traditions can escaped, you can make your own identity and destiny, and what was once lost and broken can be made whole again.

If you like the Narnia books, you’ll love the nuance and wisdom of the Earthsea series.

“The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes.”