Tehanu (1990) by Ursula LeGuiin comes at you like an erector set. There are many pieces, pictorial directions, and a screwdriver. It's up to you to figure out what the pictorial directions actually mean and hope that you can actually build that complicated thing, only to find out that you've made a mistake, or there's a screw missing, or you needs to substitute parts. Why doesn't it all just fit together.
Yeah. That's Tehanu. Why doesn't it all just fit together?
If this book was about Jane and Tom, and that burned girl Mimi, all in the land of Trolls, I would have far fewer problems with this book. It would surely but unsteadily entertain me from one end of the novel to the other. I'd have my qualm about it, but they wouldn't be big qualms. However, that's not the book that we get. We get an Earthsea novel, the fourth in the series, and with that comes titans who just don't have anywhere to sit down. No matter how you arrange it, there's a colossus in the garden and he'd like something to drink.
Our characters purport to be The Nameless One/Arha/Tenar/Goha and Sparrowhawk/Ged, yet they never feel like those characters. Case in point, Goha is trapped in her house, in the dark, and she forgets how the locks go. Oh, how that scene should never be, for it was Goha who grew up learning the dark, the ways in the dark, and the habits of the dark. She should know every nook and cranny of her house in the dark, the way that the locks go in the dark, and the number of steps in the dark, for that knowledge, that learning once and never forgetting, is so central to Arha from The Tombs of Atuan.
How could Ursula have made such a basic mistake? How could she have lost the central core of that character? I readily accept that Arha could have lost many skills and habits on leaving her native lands, learning how to live in many new ways, but nothing translated from that old character, not even her vicious push-back or her means of solace. We see bits of the character, sprinkled on like old pepper, without taste and meaningless.
Goha learned her new language as a young woman. Why does she speak flawlessly? Would not some language difficulty suit her? It would certainly help distinguish her from everyone else and constantly remind the reader that she is not from here and is different.
There was a romance, too, but that fell like an egg onto the pantry floor. It splatted, and that's about all it felt like.
In praise, this novel not only discards some fantasy conventions, it positively smashes them to the ground then dances on the shards with steel boots. We have a hero with no real power. We have a child who is never miraculously healed. We have problems raised that are not solved. We have no real villain other than the issues of our main characters. (Yes, there is that one guy, but really, he doesnt' matter. You could end the book without him and nobody would notice.)
What this book wrestles with, and what I understand all too well, is that ambitious stretch to write a fantasy novel without the fantasy tropes. I've done this myself, and wrote a series of novels from the view of a cook, meeting all those people that you never stop to speak to. Learning how to write in that idiom proved very difficult, requiring significantly different approaches than you might see in a more normal fantasy novel. Her decisions proved challenging to her, as they should have.
There is some retconning that happens in the books, but it's also not retconning. From the very beginning, Ursula's Earthsa has shown us what wizards know and what they don't know. She never leads to reader to believe that Wizards know all things magical. In this, she chooses to wrestle with her own words, her own millstones about her literary and feminist neck, which talks about women's magic as weak and women's magic as evil. To be honest, I was rooting for her in this book. I wanted her to succeed wildly, but by the end, found that she had not. She had not shown me that a woman's magic was either effective or good. For that, I mourn.
Maybe in the end, Goha merely traded one labyrinth for another, but for this one she is fully lost, with no words to recite or turns to count, unable to exit it and unable to stop wandering. In the end, what she find is someone to wander that labyrinth with her, because like all realistic stories, there are no firm beginning, and no firm ends, and no real plot. But there are people doing what people do. Better to be a people, I think.
In summary, Tehanu is a book that leads us down many paths, losing its way and refinding itself, until we stumbles out the other side of the forest, to find ourselves no more found than before.
* Disclaimer: Even after all those words, I still don't understand what I'm talking about here.