Book Review: The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #3)

“He is the earth and sunlight, the leaves
of trees, the eagle’s flight. He is alive.
And all who ever died, live; they are reborn
and have no end, nor will there ever be an end.”

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The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

In this third book in the Earthsea series, darkness threatens to overtake Earthsea: The world and its wizards are losing their magic. But Ged Sparrohawk — Archmage, wizard, and dragonlord — is determined to discover the source of this devastating loss.

Aided by Enlad’s young Prince Arren, Ged embarks on a treacherous journey that will test their strength and will. Because to restore magic, the two warriors must venture to the farthest reaches of their world — and even beyond the realm of death.

I was disappointed that The Tombs of Atuan deviated from the theme of the classic fantasy adventure story of the kind that A Wizard of Earthsea was, so I was happy to get another world-crossing journey from Le Guin. An aging Sparrowhawk travels with 17-year-old Prince Arren of Enlad to save magic from dwindling out in the world and to right the Balance, and Arren learns about the nature of the balance between life and death and why death is essential for life. Le Guin sprinkles philosophical lessons throughout the books of the Earthsea series, and while I don’t agree with all the opinions she offers in The Farthest Shore, I still appreciated the food-for-thought, and the journey into darkness to return the world’s light was a pleasant story to read.

While I enjoyed the plot, and found The Farthest Shore to be quite a page-turner, I felt that there were several elements that were lacking. The most notable for me was character development. Yes, Arren does undergo quite a “hero’s journey,” but his personality felt paper-thin throughout, lacking substance. You couldn’t tear him free of the pages and plop him into the real world; he lacked fears, ambitions, passions, secrets. Though I adored Sparrowhawk in both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, in The Farthest Shore he felt like the typical wizard trope: an old, graying man with a lined face who has seen a lifetime of wondrous things and who is now serious and pensive and troubled by a great darkness, and who lives in physical and emotional isolation from others and who saves his magic, cast with his trusty, ever-present wizard’s staff, for great works. They weren’t believable as people.

Another objection I had with The Farthest Shore was its brevity. I think it could have been a five-star book if it had been at least twice as long (my edition is roughly 300 pages, but they are very small pages) — if Le Guin had given herself more time to mold the story, I’m sure she could have solved the character development problem, too. Because it feels like a race to reach the end of the story, many of the scenes that aren’t explicitly related to Arren and Sparrowhawk’s main objective feel random and unnecessary. These scenes neither further the story nor help the characters grow, and they take precious time away from the main focus of the book, so why are they are even there? If Le Guin had maintained the tale-telling writing style she used in A Wizard of Earthsea, it would have worked, but for whatever reason, and to my disappointment, she chose not to carry that style through the rest of the series.

Because it is a lovely little adventure story but seriously lacking in depth, pacing, and character development, I give The Farthest Shore 3 out of 5 fire-breathing dragons. I’m not very motivated to finish the rest of the Earthsea Cycle; with so many books on my TBR shelf, I’m not sure I want to pursue the rest of a series that’s proven to me to be rather mediocre. Nonetheless, I still highly recommend the first installment in the series, A Wizard of Earthsea.

Cleanliness & Content Advisory: The Farthest Shore has more dark themes than its predecessors in the Earthsea series. The physical and mental consequences of drug abuse are witnessed, slavery, infanticide, and murder are mentioned, the main characters get injured, and there is a rather violent scene in which someone is nearly beheaded. Therefore I’d give this a PG-13 rating.

Read my reviews of the earlier books in the Earthsea Cycle:
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1)
The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #2)

Have you read The Farthest Shore? What did you think? Did you choose to continue reading the rest of the series?

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