Here’s a poignant fantasy novel that has appeal for readers outside the fantasy genre. Tehanu is the fourth of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, following The Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. While the series is excellent, you don’t really need to have read it to appreciate Tehanu, which reads like a kind of extended epilogue. If J.R.R. Tolkien had taken an entire book to describe the minor-key adventures of Frodo and Sam after they returned from their big adventure to destroy the ring, that would have been an equivalent book.
That’s the question at the heart of Tehanu: what do you do after the big adventures are over, after the magic is gone? How do you spend the rest of your life? The book is told from the point of view of Tenar. Those who know the series will remember her as the priestess girl in The Tombs of Atuan. After her adventures with the Wizard Sparrowhawk (also known as Ged), she retired to a quiet life married to a country farmer. As Tehanu begins, that farmer has died, and after setting his affairs in order, Tenar travels to visit Ogion. He was Ged and Tenar’s mentor, but now the great magician is old and ailing and won’t live much longer. Tenar travels to see him partly to pay final respects and partly to get his advice.
Tenar has taken over care of Therru, a girl badly scarred after her parents and others abused her and then tried to hide the evidence by burning her in a fire. Therru is permanently disfigured and only finds the courage to speak again under Tenar’s gentle care. Tenar hopes Ogeon can help her find a way to give this damaged little creature a decent life in a world that views her with horror and superstition.
As the book progresses, Ged returns to Tenar, but is without powers. Tenar’s livelihood and self are threatened, and in particular, Therru’s father returns with more threats for the girl and her caretaker. Tenar must find a way to keep all three of them safe while carving out a way of life appropriate to their changed circumstances. How do the powerless get by in a world full of greater powers? In particular, what do women and children do in a world dominated by men? Those questions at the center of Tehanu should appeal to readers who wouldn’t normally choose fantasy. A more mature Le Guin regretted that she had focused magical power on only the men in Earthsea, but she found a way to make that omission work to her advantage in this later visit to the series. Le Guin has always used fantastic settings to explore how we should behave in our real world, and nowhere more than in this book, which came fairly late in her long (and still active) career. It’s a suspenseful story, full of bittersweet beauty and the succor of truth, well worth your time over twenty years after its original publication.
You’ll find the book in the Young Adult section, following the example of the rest of the series, but its themes may appeal most to those with a little more maturity.
Check the WRL catalog for Tehanu