I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, June 20, 2024

The Tombs of Atuan

The Tombs of Atuan is the second book in the Earthsea cycle. If you liked the first one, this is a decent sequel, if a bit slow and underwhelming. I've read it maybe a decade ago and revisited it last month.

The book is about Tenar, who gets taken from their parents as a child to become the new high priestess of the "Nameless Ones" - supposedly for being the reincarnation of the former priestess - in the Tombs of Atuan, a religious complex of a few buildings over a big, mysterious dungeon.

The first few chapters show a child trying to navigate the duties of a high-priestess, dealing with isolation, insecurity, friendship and jealously from other priestesses. Halfway through the book, a peculiar prisoner gets caught in the dungeon, and it is up to Tenar to decide what to do.

Like the first book, this is a coming-of-age story, adequate to young adults, although a bit simpler than the first. Tenar is taken against her own will, and while her decisions might be difficult for the character, they look a bit predictable for the reader. 

This book very deliberately avoid having any action. There is no swordplay, flashy magic and even the "monsters" are mere shadows. Unlike the first book, there is not much travelling either. Instead, the focus is on the characters, their dilemmas and feelings.

For D&D players, the book might be worth the read for the portrayal of the labyrinthine dungeon and the process of navigating it in the dark.

The book feels very true to the first book in the sense that the themes follow naturally. Ged was looking for a name in the first one, and here he has to face the Nameless (hinted in the first book). Like Tenar, he was taken as child, but they had different mentors. Ultimately, both have to learn responsibility in order to grow.

It is another short, easy-to-read book, that I'd recommend if you like the first one - even if I liked the first one much better. In any case, I enjoyed it and proceeded to (re)read the third book in the series - which I'll review soon.


  1. Probably my favourite of the series. It handles deep themes (faith and taboos, propaganda, prejudice, trust and betrayal, …) without sounding condescending.

    I found the lack of action – and the change in perspective – curiously intriguing: it kept me constantly wondering what was going to happen (because of course something happens, eventually). It's like a good prog song that slowly builds instead of presenting a verse-chorus structure.

    1. Yes, it has a slow build, and it does handle these themes very well. The changing religion/temples is interesting too, some deities being forgotten while others get more powerful for political reasons.

      Did you read all books? How do you like the others? I'm currently reading Tehanu, but it feels even slower than Tombs at first.

    2. I did read all of the novels. There are some short stories as well but I didn't read those.

      There are some points here and there that I didn't like. The otak's death in "A Wizard" for example felt like a cheap and obvious emotional trick to me, I was foreboding that since the otak appeared and I felt disappointed to be proven right. And I'm not gonna spoil it but in Tehanu there's a big part that made me feel angry and powerless, that's arguably the main point of that story so… well done I suppose, but I can't say I really "enjoyed" that. It's a slow build to a complete disaster, and the final resolution is very deus ex machina. So, yeah, Tehanu is my least favourite.

      Overall however, I really liked the series, I think it's definitely a must read (especially since it's a relatively quick one).

    3. Thanks!

      Yes, I guess you're right - they are relatively short reads, some I'll power thru the slower parts of Tehanu.

      Already found a couple of interesting bits from dialogues, although I'm unsure how much more goat-herding I can take lol!