Saturday, July 29, 2023

Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula Le Guin

This was such a strangely paced little story. It felt very much like an Act 1, and I believe Tenar's story continues in other books in this series, so maybe that's the right way to approach it. The beginning meanders quite a bit, pleasantly enough but without much hint of where the story will go. It's not until about the halfway mark that the inciting event happens: a man (a wizard!) has entered (and shines light, even!) her dark labyrinth reserved only for her, the high priestess. The chemistry between the two, though not romantic, is very fun. She is taunting, sarcastic, smart, but sheltered. He is genuine, equally smart, and worldly. She is disarmed by his good-faith answers to her questions. With his help, she is able to leave the faith she had already begun to question. The story ends very open-ended: she has no family, no skills, no knowledge of the world beyond the tombs. What will she do? And that's why it feels like an Act 1 for me: it isn't enough to simply leave a faith, you have to replace it with something else. A new philosophy or worldview, a new community, a new purpose. Tenar still has quite a journey ahead of her.

Aesthetically this book reminded me a little of Susanna Clarke's Piranesi: a lonely person at home in a labyrinth. That one was gripping in a way this one wasn't quite, and I think it was the mystery of the place and Piranesi's past. Tenar's world is instead incredibly boring and mundane and that is in a sense the point of Le Guin's novela: why should lives be sacrificed (literally, or via devotion) for these dark, nameless Gods that provide no comfort or happiness or peace to their devotees? Life is instead what humans make of it.

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