Which Ursula Le Guin to read first, plus "Another Story" by Le Guin, for Timeslip Tuesday

So Ursula Le Guin (perhaps my favorite author of all) has won the Nebula again, for Powers, and a commenter on my post about that asked which Le Guin would be a good one to start with. My husband and I talked about this on our way to work (he is also a fiercly loyal fan) and came up with two suggestions (if you have your own recommendation, please leave a comment!)

First would have to be A Wizard of Earthsea. This is as important a YA fantasy as they come, I think, the first book I know of to explore what happens when a boy goes off to wizarding school. Ged comes to the wizards' school on the island of Roke untrained and unlettered, but full of talent and eager to prove himself. Showing off his power one night, he unleashes a dark being stronger than his magic can contain, and is pursued by it through the archipelagos of Earthsea, until he decides to turn and be the pursuer himself. It is incredibly rich in details of character, place, and magic, and a cracking good read.

The cover at right is that on the first edition. Ged was written as being from a dark skinned people, and it has been a constant annoyance to Le Guin that this has never come across in any of covers or in the movie version (which has nothing much to do with the story in the book. Here's her take on it: A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books).

Anyway, a Wizard of Earthsea is also a good place to start because it is the first of a series, and there are lots of very nice books that come after it.

My second recommendation would be The Dispossessed (1974), which won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards in 1975. It explores the life of Shevek, a brilliant mathematician on a planet colonized by idealists who have eschewed all personal property. Shevek's discovery of a way in which communications can pass through space instantaneously puts him at odds with factions of on his own planet, who are afraid of change, and takes him back to the planet from which his ancestors fled. There he must negotiate a society of property and inequality that wants desperately to possess what he has to give. This is an extraordinary book. It is a brilliant portrayal of communal life in a would-be utopian society (the book is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia), on a planet with a marginal atmosphere, and Shevek is an unforgettable character--the ultimate idealist/intellectual/loner/dreamer/husband/father. I think I have made it sound kind of unexciting, but it is a gripping read and I love it dearly and I think everyone should read it.

And now here is an Ursula Le Guin story of time travel--"Another Story," published in 1994 in an anthology entitled A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

On the planet of O, Deo grows up listening to his mother tell stories from her childhood on Earth. His favorite is the story of the fisherman, who leaves his family for the sea king's daughter. After one night, maybe more, he leaves her to return to land, only to find that many years have passed, and everyone he loved has died. Growing up, he reliazes that this is her own story- her family on Earth grew old while she traveled away from home, through light years of space.

He himself chooses to follow the same path, leaving his beloved family to study on Hain, a planet not quite so far away. It is, in fact, close enough that when, after a few years, he returns for a visit, only a decade has passed, and those he loves, including his dearest friend Sidi, are still themselves. They are older, Sidi is married, their lives have gone on much further than his.

But back on Hain, Deo and his teachers are coming close to a technology that will allow travel through space without time displacement, and Deo volunteers to try to use it to journey home. He does, and he doesn't make it back. Instead of arriving when he left Hain, he slips back through time to his first journey away from home, and his life, and Sidi's, become another story.

It's a lovely story. It is full of the anthropology that Le Guin does so well (on O, every marriage involves four people); in fact, some might find that there is a bit too much on the customs of that place, and not enough Action. But I myself like the carefully constructed world that is the backdrop for Deo's emotionally intense journey. The resonance of paths that we could have taken, the chance to go back and take them again, makes this one of my favorite of Le Guin's stories.


  1. I am a huge fantasy fan, and after needing to use Le Guin's essays for an assignment I was writing, I decided to try out A Wizard of Earthsea. I bought the quartet in one volume, but haven't read past the first book. I really didn't like it. I found it really slow, and felt not a huge deal happens - he goes some where, the thing follows, and on it goes. I was so disappointed, because I had heard such great things about her. It was such a shame. I'm glad you enjoy them! :)

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I've only read a few Ursula Le Guin books -- and I had the same experience as Jo above when I read A Wizard of Earthsea (maybe 5 years ago?) I didn't love it, and wasn't inspired to read the rest of the series.

    I'll have to try some others.

  3. I read all the Earthsea books as a child, then, as an adult, read Tehanu and the rest of her fantasies as each came out.
    Every single darn time I turn on the faucet of my kids' bathtub (and this doesn't happen very often anymore, as my kids are teens), I am instantly transported back to Earthsea. I must have been completely immersed in one of Le Guin's as I was drawing a child's bath back in the early 90s, and that memory is now meshed with that bathtub. Glorious!
    Earthsea on tap!

  4. Hmm. I am now wondering if this is a series you have to start young, like me and Eva.

    But Laini and Jo, why don't you try the second book next, The Tombs of Atuan? It is very different (being told from a girl's point of view, for one thing), and a lot more concentrated on one place (and what a dark and spooky place it is, too), with strange bits of color and history and a fascinating underground maze. It is very good...really.

  5. Thanks for the recs! I'll put Wizard of Earthsea on hold at the library and let y'all know what I think. :)

  6. Wow. I absolutely adore Ursula LeGuin, and the first one of hers I read was The Left Hand of Darkness, and WOW was that one difficult for a callow youth! The Earthsea went down a treat after that, and I plan to reread TLHoD very soon, now that I'm ostensibly more grown-up. I do love the shorts in Fisherman, though. Lovely writing, and wouldn't one of those four-person marriages be... well, an adventure, at least?

  7. While I like your recommendations and also would encourage the reading of The Dispossessed, but perhaps not starting with it, it seems worth adding: Le Guin also did some great picture books for children. My first Le Guin book was Solomon Leviathan's 931st Trip Around the World, and I still think it a beautiful place to start, for the young or young at heart.

  8. I agree, Anon, that Le Guin's picture books are lovely too. My own favorite is A Ride on the Red Mare's Back.

  9. I've been a long term fan of Ursula Le Guin getting hooked on the Earthsea Trilogy in my 20's. Her imagination almost always grips me and I can't put the book down. I find her utopian themes interesting and the seeming links to Chinese philosopy/religion. I'd recommend as well the short novels Rocannon's World and City of Illusions, as an introduction to her writing.


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