The Other Wind was published the same year as Tales of Earthsea, no doubt with the intention that the Tales anthology would lead into the full length novel. And that intention works admirably. As Le Guin herself said, the novella "Dragonfly" serves as a bridge between the last novel Tehanu and The Other Wind. It's more of a side story sort of bridge, I think The Other Wind is readable without it, but it certainly helps since Orm Irian, formerly the girl called Dragonfly, returns having become a full-fledged dragon.
Tehanu, the fourth book of Earthsea, caused some issues within the Earthsea series with its publication. For one, there wasn't supposed to be a fourth one (The Farthest Shore made a great ending to the series with Ged sailing off into the sunset), and for another, the previous three books had been children's books while Tehanu was clearly written with adult sensibilities. Also, Tehanu opened up a large can of worms that it didn't bother to answer.
For instance, when Ogion dies early in the book, he says that everything's changed, and he tells Tenar to teach Therru everything, but "not Roke" (the wizard school). So obviously Therru needs something of an education. Also, at the end of the book, young Therru manages to somehow summon Kalessin, oldest of the dragons, to smush the bad guy (almost literally). Kalessin then calls her his child and says he will give her to Ged and Tenar as they will him theirs in time. Mind you, Ged and Tenar have no children other than Therru, who is an adopted child with human parents, so I figured that meant they would eventually have a flesh-and-blood child of their own.
While Tehanu and Tales of Earthsea felt like Le Guin was moving towards challenging the gender roles of Earthsea in her later books, that theme oddly disappears in The Other Wind. Fortunately, the book does answer most of the questions raised in Tehanu and makes an excellent companion book to it. If anything, The Other Wind serves as the same sort of coda for Tehanu as The Farthest Shore did for the earlier part of the series.
The Other Wind picks up some fifteen years after Tehanu. Therru, now known by her true name, Tehanu, is a grown woman. Ged and Tenar have no other children, and they live in the Old Mage's House in Re Albi, which used to be Ogion's home. The story begins with a sorcerer named Alder who journeys to see Ged in hopes that the former Archmage of Earthsea can help banish his nightmares, which are so bad that people regard him as a man possessed.
One of the issues I had with The Other Wind is that some of the aging seems contradictory. I was pretty sure I had Ged well pegged as being in his forties during The Farthest Shore and Tehanu (which occur at about the same time), but he's now described as being in his seventies in The Other Wind. I'd had this issue before with Le Guin's Earthsea books, losing track of someone else's age, and I'm starting to wonder if it's not me so much as she doesn't keep a solid timeline herself about how old people are and what they were doing when.
Anyway, one thing I am glad about though is that Ged's involvement was kept to a minimum. Though I like him very much, the end of The Farthest Shore made it clear that he "was done with doing" and true to that, he does not good much. No more earth-shattering deeds to be done by him. While he recognizes what's happened to Alder, though not why, he sends him off to Havnor. He explains to Alder that the wizard on Gont who sent him to Re Albi didn't mean for Alder to see Ged, so much as to see Tehanu, the "woman on Gont" (a reference to a line in Tehanu, though Tehanu the character was just a child then).
Once Alder goes to Havnor, that's really where the story takes off. The Other Wind is like a whirlwind tour where everything that's come before comes together. Lebannon's struggle in The Farthest Shore is brought back from the history books and we see just what the king has been doing now that he's inherited his throne. There is trade between the Archipelago and the Kargad Lands only visited in Tombs of Atuan and some of Tenar's history is revisited as well because suddenly her homeland is relevant not only to the main plot of what's wrong with Earthsea but also the subplot involving the Lebannon's reluctance to accept any kind of bethrothal to the daughter of the High King of the Kargad Lands. Even Ged's struggle with the gebbeth from A Wizard of Earthsea comes up again. And, of course, this story wouldn't be anything if it didn't answer so much of Tehanu and expand upon "Dragonfly" from Tales of Earthsea.
In a nutshell, the story is about the changes in Earthsea that Ogion mentioned in his dying words (it took fifteen years to get going apparently) and Alder is the harbinger. Unlike most people, the Alder's dreams take him to the land of the dead, the dry land, which normally can only be reached by wizards via something like an astral projection. Non-magical people, or lesser talents like sorcerers and witches, are not supposed to be able to go there at all; not even in dreams. Worse yet, the dead in Alder's dreams don't behave like normal dead.
The dry land is so named because there is no water there. And for a water-based fantasy world, it's unsurprising that death would be dry. It's certainly as alien as anything. Generally any visit to the dry land will have the visiting mage on downward-sloping hill with a low brick wall standing between him and the desolate land of the dead below. Clearly, the dead remain on one half and the living on the other. Crossing over the wall is a bad thing. The dead spirits normally walk around in something of a daze in the cities of the dead. It's an unfeeling afterlife where nobody cares and everybody just exists. Or at least it's supposed to be.
Something's changed. The dead in Alder's dreams are begging to be freed, they want the wall broken down. For some reason they aren't listless anymore, and worse, they appear to be suffering.
And in the world of the living, the dragons, who had long held to their islands in the west, are suddenly rampaging inland. They aren't trying to kill anybody, but it's clear that they're trying to drive away humans. Kalessin, who used to lead them, had gone west to fly on the other wind. Dragons don't speak the same language as humans, speaking only in the Old Speech, or the Language of the Making, but Tehanu can speak to them as well, since she is Kalessin's daughter after some fashion that even she doesn't understand. Through Tehanu, the humans learn that the dragons are trying to claim their islands in retirbution for some similar theft from long ago, but no one remembers what that was.
Eventually it comes out that the land farther west than west, where most of the dragons have abandoned the world to fly on the other wind, is the dragons' land and it is also the human's land of the dead. As explained in the appendix of Tales of Earthsea, humans and dragons were originally one people. Humans chose to give up their freedom for the ability to create and possess (the "yoke" as the dragons call it) and dragons chose their freedom at the expense wealth. Humans chose the water and earth, and dragons the air and fire. New to The Other Wind is that the humans chose east and the dragons west.
And this is what I'm sure is a new addition meant for The Other Wind rather than something Le Guin had always had in mind. The Kargad Lands have no wizards, sorcery is unknown to them, and they have a superstition that all people of the Archipelago are sorcerors and that when they die they are not reincarnated as proper people. Interestingly enough, the dry land has no plants, animals, or Kargish people in it. So when they die, they don't go there! Discriminating afterlife? Intriguing. But anyway, what I'm sure is new is that the Kargads say the sorcerors gave up their souls to gain their sorcery, since they gave up the Old Speech (all magic is performed in the Language of the Making) when they split from the dragons. Humans regaining the Old Speech was like breaking the pact made that split the two races and humans tried to make themselves immortal with their magic.
The people in the Archipelago have a use-name and a true name, the true name being in the Old Speech and usually known only to themselves and their name giver (typically a villager sorcerer or witch). Apparently, by gaining this true name that would otherwise be lost to them, people are able to immortal after a fashion and their souls go to the dry land instead of being reborn in an endless cycle of reincarnation as the people of the Kargad Lands believe.
We also are given word that every generation or so, a human is born that is a dragon, and the reverse happens as well (though less frequently since dragons are long-lived) and a human is born among the dragons. I really would have liked to see the latter since no representative shows up. Kalessin, off screen since he never appears, says though that Tehanu will be the last, and once she makes her decision the way will be closed to all others.
The end of the book is somewhat neat, though it means a lot of changes to Earthsea. Tehanu, Alder, Irian, and several other characters decide that it really is best for the wall to come down, and so they go to the dry land (the dragons can manage fine without wizards) and tear the wall down brick by brick until the mass of spirits on the other side can cross into freedom. Tehanu ascends to her dragon form and remains flying on the other wind with Irian and the other dragons when everyone else goes back to the Archipelago.
The story ends with Tenar going back to Re Albi to tell Ged about all that's happened. And it's really a lot since the changes made to Earthsea strike at the core of the series. With the dry land freed to one again be a living land that the dragons inhabit, and the dragons themselves retiring from Earthsea, what's left? Is the pact restored and humans can no longer make use of the Old Speech to cast spells? Someone brings up the possibility in passing that magic might no longer work without the dragons, but none of the earth-shattering aftermath is really discussed. We know Earthsea is different, the only afterlife we've known has been radically altered--heck, it doesn't even exist anymore--but does anyone notice?
Still, I think it makes for a good conclusion. It doesn't entirely jive with Tehanu, but it answers the bulk of the questions the last novel raised and is a pretty good book on its own. I hope Le Guin doesn't do another though. I don't think I could take the ten year gap between Tehanu and The Other Wind again and Le Guin is getting so old I don't know that she'll last another ten. The Earthsea series should really end here, with its second story arc complete.