Reviewing a novel by Ursula Le Guin is always somewhat difficult for reasons I'll get to below, but this one is even more difficult for reasons that are my own, which I feel I must share as a method of pointing out my own bias. First, it has been an interest of mine for nearly twenty years now to find and read the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novels. Tehanu won in 1990, and so this book has been on my list for some time. You could easily argue that there is some selection bias already in play: I'm reading the book because it is an award-winner, indicating that it is reputedly pretty good. (Interesting side-note: there may not be so much bias as I first thought, since I generally only read books that I think are going to be good! It's just that one might expect the success rate for "goodness" to be higher among award-winners.)
Second, Tehanu is a particular type of book that I have come to loathe: the author returning to a series that had apparently ended. The third book of the Earthsea "trilogy" had been published in 1973, so there was about 15 years between the "completion" of the series and this new book appearing (ironically, despite Tehanu being subtitled The Last Book of Earthsea, another Earthsea book was published in 2001). Philosophically, there is absolutely no reason why an author shouldn't return to a series, a work that intrinsically represents a great deal of resources and investment. It's just that my gut tells me that usually those returns are not nearly as successful as the original series. I know this expectation comes directly from Piers Anthony and his Apprentice Adept series, which reached a lovely conclusion after the third book, only to pick up again five years later with such ridiculous storytelling that it trounced any happy feeling I had for the first three. (I seem to be tangential today, for which I apologize. If I could contain and adequately express my frustration, rage, and grief at the oeuvre of Piers Anthony, I think it would make an interesting blog article. Something to ponder.) I'm sure if I did research, I would find there have been many series that I enjoyed which restarted after an appreciable gap. But the vile taste from Apprentice Adept lingers on.
And so I approached Tehanu with slightly heightened optimism and pessimism. Having read the first three books of Earthsea some years ago, I thought I knew what to expect story-wise, but my own biases were sending all sorts of mixed signals. As it turned out, I devoured the book in about a day.
The difficulty inherent in reviewing Le Guin lays in her subtlety. Tehanu is a powerful story for all its mundaneness, a character piece about a character that has already experienced her best days, her days as a hero. Tenar is a heroine from the earlier books, but she had given up the magic life she had been living to become a farmer's wife and mother. Now that her husband has died and her children have grown up, she lives a simple existence with a small farm and sheep. She learns that the archmage Ogion, whom readers new to the books can easily determine is an old friend of hers, is dying, and she goes to him with her cruelly abused young ward Therru.
They story feels like it is written with children in mind, much as the first three books: the style is simple, the language plain. The dull repetition of daily chores and of making a life in something like the middle ages lulls the reader into a sense of security. But underneath this simple exterior roils the anger of a woman who was once a hero and who chose to be something else, learning too late that the common woman of the time has only a role in her society but no real place. The only disturbances in her routine come from the broken people around her. Therru was raped and hideously maimed as a young child, and a great deal of Tenar's resources is spent in trying to get Therru to participate in the world again. Therru's growth and its results make up the crisis in the novel. Tenar's life is also disrupted when her old friend Ged returns to her, bereft of all his magical powers and mourning their loss. And so Tenar includes him in her healing circle.
Most of Tehanu is split between Tenar's domestic interaction with the people around her and her memories and contemplations of her reduced role. There were times when I felt that Le Guin laid on the feminist meditation on too thickly, but I recognize I am not a woman and so not as affected by Tenar's position than if I were. But to make her points more concrete, rather than just use abstract musings about unfairness, Le Guin introduces two horribly vile antagonists to harass Tenar and her circle. The first is Therru's father, who apparently wants his daughter back either out of fear that she will tell what happened to her or because he wants to more of it. His very appearance counteracts over a year's worth of care from Tenar, shocking Therru into near catatonia. The second is the local wizard who, jealous of Tenar's former power and because of his belief in the reduced role of women in his society, curses Tenar with a growing stupidity; so long as Tenar remains in his area, she slowly loses the knowledge and skills that make her who she is, going down the road to becoming the perfect slave. Tenar, Therru , and Ged escape, but the structure of storytelling demands that these villains eventually be met again and thwarted.
But even through the horror of their encounters with these evil men, Le Guin's style remains slow and steady. There are very few scenes of panic or any other irrational activity—the threats are understated. Tenar doesn't realize she is becoming more and more stupid, she just does, and the narration absorbs that change until Tenar remembers enough to escape. Likewise, the threat of Therru's father is only manifest two or three times; what's more scary is the idea of him and the knowledge that he may still be around somewhere.
It would be easy for casual readers to treat Tehanu as light fare, deceived by the apparently sedate style. But closer readers and those who have an eye for writerliness will recognize the feat that Le Guin pulls off by disguising events that change the life and world of Tenar in this simple homely narrative. That juxtaposition, that ease of style while dealing with difficult or important ideas, marks a great deal of Le Guin's writing. My difficulty is that I get lulled into becoming a less critical reader by Le Guin's style, and I don't give the ideas behind her prose the attention they deserve. Over time, as I ponder her work, I begin to realize the experience her craft has guided me through, but it is not an immediate observation and so my feelings about the work generally move from ambivalence to praise.
I need to add a caveat: while the first three Earthsea books won numerous awards for children's literature, I just can't recommend Tehanu for similar audiences. The eventual revelation of what Therru suffered may be too much for young readers, and parents might have a difficult time explaining or comforting. On the other hand, Tehanu is a fine read for adults who are patient and observant.