Since I’ve mentioned a referent for each of the prior books, I’ll say here that the start of this book reminded me of John Christopher (Sam Youd), one of the pre-eminent purveyors of YA SFF, and with a similarly deft hand in showing young people encountering feet of clay. And that bitter disappointment in, not only breach of trust, but in idols who turn out to be flawed people, is very much what this book is about. Our protagonist, Gav, is on a long journey of disappointment in people, cultures, and life in general. That sounds grim, and there are some dark bits in the book, but it’s also about hope, perseverance, and silver linings.
Le Guin’s customary rich prose and flowing style keeps the book moving along smoothly. Gav and his acquaintances are engaging, interesting, and moving, and you feel for him and them in everything they go through. We’re back to something closer to real magic in this last book, though it’s not the driving force of the story. We also come back to characters from the previous books, though not until very late in the book. That ending, in fact, feels incomplete – more a stopping point than a real resolution of Gav’s story. While it could be read as a vindication of faith, I found it a bit of an odd ending given everything Gav has seen and learned in life. In fact, Le Guin leaves a number of other threads only partially resolved – one, a dire threat from Gav’s past, re-emerges late in the story, terrifies him, and then… goes away, and no one worries about it, because magic. I found it very unsatisfying, and not a good match for the previous careful plotting.
I’m fairly confident I’ve not read these books before (I bought this one years ago, but the second only recently), yet they felt extremely familiar. Am I wrong about reading them? Did Le Guin merely make use of familiar tropes? Do the books build on core archetypes of the genre? I don’t know. I think it’s very unlikely that a writer as skilled as Le Guin (and to every indication still very sharp until her death), lost her ability to innovate. However, I found that this nagging sense of familiarity undermine the books a bit, in that I was fairly confident where they were going (which is part of why I didn’t give a higher rating). They’re still very well written, though.