Details: (c) Inter-Vivos trust for the Le Guin children 1973; Pub Penguin 1993 (compendium edition); ISBN 0-14-015427-2
Verdict: The farthest shore is almost the perfect YA fantasy novel.
Reasons for reading it: I chanced on a nice convenient single volume edition of the Earthsea trilogy plus Tehanu and I've been working through it at a leisurely pace
How it came into my hands: The lovely Galloway & Porter discount bookshop in Cambridge, a couple of years ago now.
The Farthest Shore just works. It has all the strengths of the earlier two, and almost none of the weaknesses. The language is heart-breakingly beautiful as only Le Guin can manage. The characterization is really superlative, and the problem of Ged being over-powered is resolved in a highly satisfactory way. And it's a great story, with an amazing range of emotional tone, exciting and tragic and heartening and unexpected yet archetypal. Wonderful.
Arren is up there with the great heroes of children's literature. He's amazingly human and teenaged, but in a way that doesn't jar against also being the messianic figure foretold by an ancient prophecy. I think what impressed me most is that he is like an actual teenager rather than the popular idea of what a teenager is like, and he's certainly more than ordinary but not without flaws.
There are ways that the plot is directly parallel to The return of the King, (even down to a convenient mythological winged creature showing up so the heroes can hitch a ride out of a hopeless situation), but amazingly neither book is diminished thereby. It's very much its own book and it's allusive rather than derivative.
The only aspect that I'm less than wildly enthusiastic about is the moral message. It's a subtle one about suffering being part of life, and people not being wholly good or evil, but I did feel that the book veers into being slightly preachy at times. Plus, there's the sense that the world is set up to make the preferred moral system work, which is perhaps a little bit cheating. (The "don't take drugs, kids" part of the moral message is just irritating, mind you.) I suspect I might have loved this stuff as a young teenager, when the kinds of ideas discussed were new to me. There was definitely a time in my life when I needed a story about loss of innocence and rejecting a child's expectation of fairness, but without falling into cynicism and nihilism, and I think tFS would have filled that slot extremely well.
The other flaw, if you can call it that, is that there is just too little of it. The world-building, and the adventure, and the language, and the tackling difficult moral issues, how can all that be covered in just 150 pages?! I want more, not a sequel but more expansion of the themes. But it's a deeply emotionally nourishing book all the same.