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Earth, sea and wind

Old friends now draw readers into a debate on the meaning of life itself. Jan Mark reviews a new Ursula Le Guin story for teenagers

The Other Wind. By Ursula Le Guin. Orion Children's Books pound;10.99

At the end of Ursula Le Guin's original Earthsea trilogy, in The Farthest Shore, the Archmage Ged and his protege Prince Arren journey to the world of the dead to repair the damage caused by one who has discovered the secret of immortality, thus upsetting the balance of life and death. This afterworld is a place of utter nullity: "For he saw the mother and child who had died together... but the child did not run, nor did it cry, and the mother did not hold it, nor even look at it. And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets."

Anyone who reads both Philip Pullman's The Amber Spyglass and this book must notice that the two writers have thought their way to a similar conclusion: that to refuse to die is to negate life itself; but what is a belief in an afterlife other than a refusal to accept that death is the proper end? We may no longer believe in a heaven of harps and haloes but a desire persists for evidence of survival after death while we seek to prolong life indefinitely.

Le Guin tells of a man haunted by dreams of his dead wife and the countless other dead begging to be set free from the bondage of an afterlife that is no life. In attempting to create heaven the Mages of old denied mankind its only hope of immortality, not in reincarnation as we understand the term but in molecular redeployment, becoming one again with the matter of the universe.

This absorbing philosophical debate can stand alone for Le Guin's new readers (from age 12 upwards); for long-standing fans of the Earthsea saga, old friends are here, including Prince Arren, who now rules Earthsea as King, wise and beloved but resentful and wrong-footed when a warlord sends his burqa-shrouded daughter as a potential bride to seal a treaty; Tehanu, the burned child from the novel of that name, now a young woman who speaks with dragons; Irian, who can be woman or dragon at will, and the dragons themselves, who chose the world of the spirit when men elected for knowledge and power.

At the heart of it all continues the story of Ged and Tenar, once Archmage and priestess, united in their enduring love; aging peacefully in the certainty that whatever immortality they may have will be in what they plant and grow in the earth where they will spend eternity.

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