December Books 8) The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula Le Guin
December Books 9) The Farthest Shore, by Ursula Le Guin
December Books 10) Tehanu, by Ursula Le Guin
December Books 11) Tales from Earthsea, by Ursula Le Guin
December Books 12) The Other Wind, by Ursula Le Guin
Partly inspired by Jo Walton's set of essays (here, here, here, here, here and here) but more by the fact that Tehanu was next on my list of Nebula winners, I have been rereading the six Earthsea books. I strongly recommend this as a little literary project if you want to challenge yourself. The longest book, Tales from Earthsea, is only a little over 300 pages; The Other Wind less than 250 and the first four around 200. Also, you have probably read some of them already. I remember A Wizard of Earthsea on Jackanory when I must have been about eight, with creepy drawings and all; I found The Tombs of Atuan in a school library a couple of years later, and loved it; and I think I was given The Farthest Shore as a present before I was a teenager. But I read the last three as an adult, and one by one over a period of several years; and I don't really recommend that, because despite the sixteen year publication gap between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu, the action follows directly from the one to the other.
I won't go into the detail of the plot, since Jo Walton has done that and you probably already know at least the first book. What struck me this time was the structure of the six books. They fall rather neatly into three trilogies, even though Tales From Earthsea is not a novel but a story collection and despite the close time link between the third and fourth books. The classic Earthsea trilogy, the first three books, are a thing of beauty; three Bildungsromane, the stories of Ged, Tenar and Arren/Lebannen, the latter two guided by Ged; but also with a very dark streak in all three, about the world of death leaking into the world of life - centre stage in the first and third books, and never far out of sight in the second. The images - of dragons and the shadow, of the subterranean labyrinth, and of the dry wall separating life and death - will stay with me all my life. Everyone should read them.
The second trilogy is more problematic. I like and appreciate the structure, where first we return to Ged and Tenar and the injured child, and then we divert into some stories of which the last takes us to the question of women and Roke (and dragons), and finally a grand restructuring of Earthsea to repair the damage done to its fundament by the misbehaving wizards of the first trilogy. But actually these are not really improvements. The urgency and vitality of the first three books - particularly the first two - has been slightly dissipated by a process of reflection, which is interesting and engaging but not fascinating and enthralling in the same way. So anyone reading the six books in order needs to be warned in advance that the first ones are the best. Which is not to say that the later ones are bad.
Having said that none of the books is actually bad, I'm afraid I concluded that Tehanu is much the weakest of the six. It's nice to see what Tenar has been up to for the intervening decades between The Tombs of Atuan and The Farthest Shore but it's not terribly satisfying to see her, a former incarnate goddess, being casually dismissed by her wastrel ex-pirate son. It's nice to see how her relationship with Ged develops, with Tenar as adoptive daughter. But the means and motivation of the bad guys is very poorly explained, certainly compared to the other books; and the abrupt ending comes quite literally out of a clear blue sky, and is a jarring change of pace.
Tehanu won the 1991 Nebula against one book I've read a long time ago and think I liked better at the time though I remember very little about it (Dan Simmons' The Fall of Hyperion) and four books that I not only have not read but have not even heard of (Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly, James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, John E. Stith's Redshift Rendezvous and Jane Yolen's White Jenna). The Hugo that year went to Bujold's The Vor Game, likewise a volume I don't particularly rate in a series I generally love.