Review: The Farthest Shore

“I do not like waste and destruction. I do not want an enemy. If I must have an enemy, I do not want to seek him, and find him, and meet him. … If one must hunt, the prize should be a treasure, not a detestable thing.” page 113

The Farthest Shore (Earthsea Cycle #3) by Ursula K. LeGuin.
My edition Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2001.
Fantasy, 260 pages.
Lexile: 920L .
AR Level: 6.1 (worth 10.0 points) .
NOTES: Please see review for age appropriateness. See my other posts under the Earthsea tag for more information on this series.

Arren travels with his idol Ged to solve the mystery of why magic is slowly disappearing from the islands of Earthsea.

Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore won the National Book Award for children’s books in 1973 and is still in print today.

The Farthest Shore is not without problems. Female characters continue to be minor or even unnamed. One secondary character suffers from mental illness and I had so many thoughts on that subplot they might not all fit in this post.

Parents and teachers should be aware of several aspects before handing this to a child. First, Arren has a crush on Ged. I read this as the sort of schoolchild hero worship that many children experience during puberty, but other readers have seen an unrequited romantic love. The text supports either interpretation. Ged absolutely does not have romantic or sexual feelings towards Arren, and their slightly forced companionship grows into mutual respect and esteem as events progress.

On the subject of relationships, it should also be noted that Arren interacts with a 15 year old girl and 17 year old boy who are married. I didn’t find this overly problematic within the context of the story, where it is a brief instance and not the norm within Earthsea.

Second, kidnapping and slavery occurs. Third, drug use occurs. More on those below Finally, although not immediately clear, mental illness plays a major role in the plot. And yet, even though these topics sound more appropriate for YA or adult reading, I felt the way they are treated here was still okay for middle grade readers.

Spoilers in this paragraph. Drug use is treated with appropriate horror and yet compassion for the addicted former mages. When Arren is captured by slave traders, he reacts in an expected way. Ged saves him but refuses to trap the slavers, freeing all the enslaved persons but saying that he will not put any person in a cage, no matter how despicable their actions. In a completely different chapter, but added here to keep spoilers within this paragraph, a character dies in a manner that could be suicide. Like Arren’s crush, it could be interpreted more than one way and I did feel it was handled appropriately for MG, but it’s still a heavy topic worth mentioning. End of spoilers.

The mental illness portrayal is more complicated. We view mental illness through many lenses, including that of a main character, mages who have turned to drug use to cope without magic, craftspersons whose art is lost and are turning to insanity without their livelihood or their expression, and Sopli.

I searched for this book truly hoping that the late great Disability in Kidlit or another outlet specializing in mental health literature had reviewed it. I’ve already discussed how Earthsea (despite many poor cover depictions) was ahead of its time depicting a mostly-dark-skinned fantasy world; it might be equally advanced in the depiction of depression.

Yet for all that, a character is called in text and by others “the madman.” He is also called Sopli, yet a symptom of the disorder makes hearing his own true name painful. The events of chapter seven I won’t go into here, except to note that after several rereads I still find myself conflicted.

Although I disliked the language used around Sopli, his portrayal was not mere stereotype. Especially because multiple characters were shown with various mental illnesses, or possibly various symptoms of the same disorder (loss of magic in the world), the portrayal felt deeper and more empathetic than most I’ve read in MG fantasy. The same was true for other difficult aspects of the story.

The first three Earthsea books are all coming of age stories of some kind, first Ged himself, then Tenar, and now Arren. (One could also argue that Tehanu is too, but I’ll save my commentary for that review.) But since Ged plays a role in each story, we also see him gradually aging and maturing. Earthsea is not the story of one man, but through this one man’s everchanging yet ultimately human life, we enter into a much larger scale fantasy.

Earthsea is dated in some ways, yet it felt incredible to reread this original trilogy, first written before Middle Grade was even a category. The particular version I read for this review is labeled “Ages 10-14,” but I’ve also seen editions marketed specifically to adults or teens.

Books like this one are why I prefer to write long form reviews, rather than just giving stars or writing short opinion pieces. Do I recommend this book? Sort of. I think it has a place in middle school, high school, and adult libraries, especially those with students who have a strong interest in fantasy fiction. Whether it is a good fit for individual readers, especially young readers, will depend a lot on listening to the content warnings and good common sense.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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