Review: ‘The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition’

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Books of Earthsea Illustrated Edition review cover book
A gorgeous sleeve on a fantastic book. Photo by A. Leach

Many, many moons ago (we won’t talk about just how many), I was assigned a book to read. Its name was A Wizard of Earthsea, and I was immediately enamored. I turned the book report in after only a few days, and requested to read the rest of the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin rather than continue one chapter a week with the other students. I loved the whole series, but hadn’t had the opportunity to pick it up again until I got to check out the new Simon and Schuster offering of The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition.

earthsea illustrated edition book review
The first page I flipped to, with art that drew me in for several minutes. Photo by A. Leach

What is Earthsea?

Ursula K. Le Guin introduced our world to hers in 1968 for the first time. It is a world of islands, surrounded by a sea that cannot be fully charted. The story begins with a young man showing magical promise and takes you on a fantastical journey with varying teachers, cultures, and social norms. If you’re looking for a commentary on society, you can find it; however, it’s not force-fed. Instead, this classic series is immersive and difficult to put down. If you’ve read it in the past and are unsure of whether it will withstand the test of time, have no fear. It’s even better as an adult. Each book in the series features a new hero or heroine, but the threads are woven tightly and we never leave behind one character for long. Dragons are not inherently bad, and shadows aren’t always as they seem. People are good and bad, and magic is both predictable and wild.

This hardbound edition includes not only the Earthsea Cycle novels, but a never-before-printed short story and the text of her Oxford lecture on Earthsea as well. It’s all brought together with gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess, further transporting you to Earthsea.

earthsea illustrated edition artwork book
The inside of the front cover draws you in with true-to-the-story art. Photo by A. Leach

Who should read ‘The Books of Earthsea’?

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition is best suited for adolescents and adults. I highly recommend it as a family book club read, as there are several themes that are worthy of discussion. From a Tao-like focus on balance, to coming of age and finding one’s true self, there are many openings for discussions. Having reread the series now as an adult, I see themes that stuck with me as I matured, and others that I didn’t recognize when I was younger. I look forward to watching my kids process the same material. There are some heavier themes to be aware of later on in the series: a rape and assault is discussed, but I was not put off by her depiction nor did I find it too graphic for my children. If you are concerned, I recommend reading the series or even each individual novel before handing it off.

Why this new illustrated edition?

Even if you are familiar with Earthsea and its inhabitants, there is something new for you in this beautiful new edition. Charles Vess incorporates years of collaboration with Le Guin into dozens of illustrations that clearly bring her vision to life. They are interspersed appropriately, with little to no interruption of the flow of reading except when the artwork captures your attention for several minutes. Another real treat awaits you at the end of the book: a lecture Le Guin presented at Oxford University in 1992 that reveals her depth of understanding of heroes and gender and sexism and color and racism and stories. I loved reading it, as I had never done so before, and I was reminded of the many reasons Le Guin has always been an inspiration, moreso than many fantasy authors. She touched my adolescent spirit in ways no other author had or has, and her acknowledgment of failure and frailty even in a hero as part of the balance and not a token plot point helps us recognize that we are all heroes and heroines, upholding the balance.

earthsea illustrated edition book review
The spirit of the series is captured in black and white as well as color. Photo by A. Leach

The only negative thing I can think of to say about this edition is that it is not in any way a portable read. It is heavy, thick, and at times a little unwieldy. This is not a book for taking with you on your public transit commute; instead, it’s a book designed for curling up with, propping on your lap, and taking your time with. Treated with care, The Books of Earthsea could be a family heirloom. The binding is high quality and with or without the jacket, the book is beautiful.

earthsea illustrated edition book
At over a thousand pages, this is a book to be reckoned with. Photo by A. Leach

While this edition is definitely worth a buy for the extra content and illustrations, the fact that it is a little hefty may discourage young readers a bit. Sadly, this is not yet available in a Kindle edition, but we can hope for one in the future.

MSRP for The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition is $59.99, but it’s available on Amazon for quite a bit less.

The author of this article received a complimentary copy of The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition for review purposes. The opinions of the author are her own.

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