the other wind review
jan 17 2022
When I finished the last page of The Other Wind and closed the book, I wasn't even sure if I liked it or not. I was baffled, and I had to sit and think and let the book and its themes marinate in my mind for a day or two. The longer I thought, though, the more I was sure that I loved it and thought it was brilliant. Part of what is so difficult to grasp at first is the themes of deconstruction; Le Guin became very anti-capitalist in her later years, which is reflected in The Other Wind. In the first three Earthsea books, she set up classic fantasy tropes and systems— magic, the dry land, and sexism. In the last three Earthsea books, Le Guin sets out to examine and dismantle these systems. This was jarring, at first; as a reader, it's hard to accept that the worldbuilding the author sets up is not always perfect (sometimes purposefully). I don't mean perfect in the sense of perfectly crafted and written, but perfect in the sense of "right" and "just" within the world. The way the school of Roke is set up is unfair. The sexism in Earthsea is unfair. The dry land is a horrible, scary afterlife to have to go to one day. The books don't immediately challenge these systems when they introduce them, because they're so ingrained in the world it would be hard for any denizen actually living in them to critique or escape them. Yet it's still hard, as readers, to hear Le Guin tell us that these are all things that must be dismantled and taken away. Once I got used to it, however, I really loved it. There are so many oppressive systems in our lives that feel immutable and unchangeable, and it's interesting to see Le Guin imagine a world in which we can actually destroy these systems and still find joy and beauty in our lives.
The book is very tight, introspective, and almost plotless. Nothing really happens except characters going from one place to another and thinking about what they've done and seen. I love this, but I feel like there are too many characters to really comfortably fit into a narrative like this. The main character feels a bit like just a retread of both Ged and Arren mashed together, and because of that is not very interesting. We've heard this story before and while I get that Le Guin was trying to come full circle, I just don't think it paid off fully. Tenar is one of my favorite characters, but I don't think she needed a perspective in this book. Instead of seeing the Kargish princess through her eyes, I wish we had gotten a perspective from the princess instead. Her character development is really lacking in this book, and while we get some interesting hints with her desire to be courageous and make something of her life, her arc ends in a very unsatisfying way. Here is a woman who has been used by men her whole life— how does her arc end? By being married to the man she didn't want to marry in the first place and being told by Tenar she needs to "keep him warm" and "wait for him." The relegation of the Kargish princess- and the female characters in general- to hearth keepers that must keep things at home warm for the men in their lives was honestly unexpected and very disappointing from a series that has been so active at tearing down misogynistic tropes and systemic sexism.
I also did not like that Arren falls in love with the princess as soon as she takes her veil off. To me, it felt like it was very strongly hinted throughout The Farthest Shore and The Other Wind that Arren was gay, or at least more interested in men than women. In The Farthest Shore, he's quite clearly obsessed with Ged, and while some may take this as hero worship the book itself explicitly describes it as "romantic ardor." In The Other Wind it's stressed that Arren is extremely resistant to marriage despite it being pushed on him by his councilors and friends, and that he has many female friends who he spends time with, but he has never been romantically involved with a woman despite being in his mid thirties/early forties. This felt like gaycoding to me personally, although I know it could be read a hundred different ways. Him being forced into marriage with the Kargish princess is fine— it could've been an interesting setup for a platonic state marriage where both people support each other without actually being romantically interested in each other. However, this isn't the case. He actually genuinely falls in love with the princess after seeing her unveiled, which is kind of disappointing and fetishistic.
It makes Arren feel shallow and only interested in looks. He doesn't spend time with the princess and realize he was too harsh, but essentially sees her vulnerable and nearly naked and decides she's pretty and worth interacting with. There's also a pretty huge age gap here, which makes it harder to be okay with what is essentially a middle aged man thirsting after a twenty year old woman. The power imbalance is only compounded by the fact that she is entirely dependent on him for survival and doesn't even speak the language of the land. He basically demands she learn their language but does not do the same thing in return. There was a moment later in the book where I thought he might offer to learn hers, which I think would've been a nice signifer of his growth, but it doesn't actually happen. It's also implied that he just didn't like the princess at first because he was misogynistic and has mommy issues, which I would have actually been fine with if the narrative had explored or unpacked that in any way. It's implied that he was deeply dissatisfied with the relationship he had with his mother and the relationship his parents had with each other, which could've been the basis for his distaste for marriage. However, this is completely dropped and not really discussed in the latter half of the novel. Fine, have him be against marriage because he's afraid of being controlled by a woman, but don't just let that go unchallenged and fizzle out. Have him explore this fear and acknowledge he was wrong— don't just have it be strongly implied and then dropped because you want readers to actually be invested in their relationship! I feel like Le Guin tried to sell me a relationship in twenty pages and completely failed, because it needed a novel of buildup to really be a relationship I could care about and root for.
In Tales of Earthsea I didn't really love Dragonfly's character, and I think she's much better here. At the end of Tales, Dragonfly abrutply changes from an active characater to a passive pushover. Here, she's back to being an active, unselfconscious, and fun woman. Le Guin has a tendency to pair off characters, even the ones who don't really feel like they need a partner or romance, but that doesn't happen with her. It's refreshing in a novel where many of the important driving factors are explicitly romantic relationships. Not saying this is a bad thing, or that I dislike the romantic relationships between Ged and Tenar or Lilly and the main character, but that I felt like the strong and beautiful platonic relationships Le Guin usually writes well were missing from some of this novel. There are some between Tehanu and Tenar, and Tehanu and Dragonfly, but other than that there's not really a lot.
Overall, I really liked the themes and writing of this book but I think some of the characters and relationships fell flat.
Ranking based on theme: Tehanu > The Other Wind > Tombs of Atuan > Tales of Earthsea > A Wizard of Earthsea > The Farthest Shore
Ranking based on personal enjoyment: Tombs of Atuan > Tehanu > A Wizard of Earthsea > The Farthest Shore > The Other Wind > Tales of Earthsea
* I don't think any of these books are bad. They're all 4-5 star books. So these are basically ranked on a sliding scale of good-best, not bad-good