Tales from Earthsea is what the title suggests, a collection of stories taking place in Ursula K. Le Guin's criticially acclaimed Earthsea setting. It comes with an extensive foreward and appendix, which most readers will find quite handy since those who pick up this volume are likely already readers of Earthsea. In fact, the author herself recommends in the foreward that this volume only be read after the previous four books A Wizards of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, and Tehanu.
Tales from Earthsea continues the fleshing out of Earthsea and in particular the challenging of the wizard's way of life that began in Tehanu. If you didn't like Tehanu because Le Guin changed the direction of the series then Tales of Earthsea is not for you. Tales is a collection of five stories, "The Finder," "Darkrose and Diamond," "The Bones of the Earth," "On the High Marsh," and "Dragonfly." Both "Darkrose and Diamond" and "Dragonfly" were previously published elsewhere, and as expected, they stand better alone than the others do.
"The Finder" leads off the anthology with the story of the founding of the wizard's school on Roke. It's a meandering tale that follows the life of a man named Medra, who is the finder of the title. It doesn't work very well as a stand alone story since it lacks a strong conflict and narrative focus, but if one grows to like Medra, and he is a likeable sort, then it's hardly a bother to follow him around for the duration of his life. My primary complaint is that I found it very difficult to keep track of his age. I tend to have this problem with any character above the age of twenty in Earthsea because Le Guin tends to refer to any character older than thirty as being "old." I'm not sure if that's because the series originated as a children's series (where to a child thirty is old) or because she's being realistic about the lifespan of common folk in agarian societies where one tended to have children as early as possible and be a grandparent by age thirty-five. Since "The Finder" covers Medra's entire life I felt a needed stronger clues to get a feel for how old he was during the particular episodes highlighted in the narration.
Perhaps one thing interesting about Medra as a protagonist is that he's a man of great power, but his greatest talent isn't in shapeshifting or cracking open the earth (both of which he can do). It's in finding things. Finding is so mundane that in Le Guin's appendix she mentioned that the school of Roke eventually dropped the title of Master Finder and replaced it with the Master Chanter because finding was deemed a minor talent not worthy of a wizard. But it was important back in Medra's day, roughly three hundred years before the Earthsea novels. Back then, there was no organized teaching of "crafty men" and people with magic had to hide their talents or be exploited. If the craft users could ever unite they would be a fearsome threat to the petty lords who played king of the Archipelago. And so by finding the right kinds of people to gather on Roke, Medra breaks the hold the pirate lords have over Earthsea. He does this in no dramatic fashion on his own, but it only happened because he wanted to bring like people together. The end of his story also explains how the ninth Master of Roke, the Master Doorkeeper, came into being.
Other than Medra and the historial aspects of the story, I'm not sure how much I like "The Finder." He has an encounter with a girl named Anieb who dies on him midway through the story and her ghost seems to be following him along somehow, but I don't understand why or what it is that she still wants from him. Death is represented by a shadowed land with a wall dividing the side of the living from the side of the dead, and though Anieb died, Medra sees her spirit on the side of the living. Granted she didn't have a very good death, having died young due to the poisonous atmosphere in which she'd been enslaved, I had expected a better resolution of that. Also, I find it very offputting when swearing appears in a fantasy setting, even when the swear word is in fact very old in the real world. "I am one who shits moonlight" just doesn't sound right even when coming from a mad and most certainly deranged wizard.
The second story is "Darkrose and Diamond" which I didn't like at all. I didn't care for the two main characters, Darkrose or Diamond. There were some nice cultural additions to Earthsea featured in the story that haven't appeared anywhere else, but since I didn't care for the characters it made no difference to me that the two of them got together in the end, and that's not a good sign for what is supposed to be a romance. "Darkrose and Darkness" was previously published elsewhere so perhaps that was incentive not to set it where it actually mattered to the rest of the Earthsea series, but since it doesn't matter it's easily skipable. I would rather "Darkrose and Diamond" have been tossed from the collection and the far older short story "The Rule of Names" included. Though "The Rule of Names" is from the children's series era of Earthsea, it's not currently available in any of Le Guin's short story collections and I dearly want a copy of it.
In the middle of the book is "The Bones of the Earth," which is about the wizard who taught Ogion, who in turn taught Ged. (And if you don't know Ged you either haven't read Earthsea or you need to be brained.) Aside from the nth-degree connection with Ged and expanding a story behind Ogion that was only briefly mentioned in A Wizard of Earthsea, "The Bones of the Earth" stands very well on its own. Dulse is an engaging main character and it's nice to see a younger Ogion. One of the neat literary tricks Le Guin does is with Dulse's teacher. Dulse reflects on a powerful spell he is going to cast for the first time, because it's a transformation spell that cannot be undone, and he remembers how his mentor taught it to him, describing the gestures in details. When the earthquake is threatening to strike Gont, he reveals to Ogion that his teacher was a woman, but because of that she could not attend Roke, which only admits men. The trick is that Le Guin manages to describe everything Dulce's mentor had done without once referring to her as a female. Hiding a person's gender like that without the reader catching on is very difficult in a third person narrative, and since generally only wizards teach wizards, it's then easy for the reader to conclude Dulce's mentor was a woman without ever have been told otherwise.
The fourth story is something of my favorite. That is "On the High Marsh." Admittedly some of the favoritism comes from the humbleness of the wizards involved. Unlike most books in which wizards are godly and important men, special, the wizards of Earthsea can be quite down to earth. Not all of them are, but "On the High Marsh" features a broken, but powerful wizard who has fled to the remote countryside and found himself a new life as a simple healer of animals. This is also the only story in Tales of Earthsea to feature Ged, during his years as Archmage of Earthsea. It says something about the character of Earthsea when the Archmage, the most powerful individual in the entire Archipelago, says he's fine with sleeping in a barn for the night and only because his horse requires shelter, otherwise he wouldn't have imposed at all. Unfortunately Ged only appears in the second half of the story and because of that his presence is a little intrusive since Irioth is the main character.
The last story is "Dragonfly," which oddly enough, contains references to both "The Finder" and "On the High Marsh" even though it is the oldest of the stories in this collection. "Dragonfly" was Le Guin's first Earthsea story since Tehanu and originally appeared in the Legends anthology back in 1997. According to her foreward, it's the story that drew her back into writing Earthsea stories again. "Dragonfly" also serves as the bridge between Tehanu and the sixth book of Earth, The Other Wind (which I have not yet read as of this writing). This story is the longest, being a novella and a fair chunk of the book.
It's hard to say what "Dragonfly" is about other than it concerns a young girl, later woman, trying to find her place in the world. That's not an uncommon thing, but Dragonfly is a rather odd girl. She's sympathetic and caring, simplistic and earnest, but also filled with an almost mechanical violence due to having an alcoholic father who pines for the days when his family owned much of the surrounding land. Dragonfly is also huge, being over six feet in height, and while she isn't mocked for it, her excess height further sets her apart from others.
Through the intervention of a lustful dork named Ivory (who gets far too much time spent on his point of view), she gains hope that the wise men of Roke will be able to tell her who she is and where she belongs. She thinks that she might be able to study at Roke, and even though women are barred from ever studying the magic of wizards she thinks she can give it at try and abide by their rules if they will allow her.
Dragonfly does make it as far as getting through the door to Roke, at which point the Master Doorkeeper makes the interesting observation that while Irian is her true name (which she had to speak to get through the door), it is not all of her name. She may have another. But even getting that far is without precedent and the nine masters of Roke meet to determine what to do with her. More than in previous books, we get a greater feel for the machinations of the different masters on Roke and how they have their different agendas.
In this case, there is a bit of a furor because one of the masters has resurrected himself (yes, he brought himself back from the land of the dead after he was already dead!). Since Ged has departed his position as Archmage there is a power vacuum in Earthsea. The new king had been discovered by the end of The Farthest Shore, but he had to crown himself since Ged could not be found to symbolically offer the transfer of power in Tehanu. Thorion, the formerly dead wizard, is trying to arrange it so that the majority of the masters will side with him and elect him the new Archmage. He could then theoretically charge that the new king is invalid unless properly crowned by him.
Dragonfly, through no real action of her own other than her presence, becomes the foil for that. Though she is not allowed to study magic at Roke, she is invited to stay at an old hut near the school (oddly enough a hut that Medra of "The Finder" had once lived in) and becomes friends with four of the more sympathetic masters. Eventually even that is too much for Thorion and his lackeys to stand for, so they try to get rid of her, but there is a latent power in Dragonfly so when push comes to shove, she defeats Thorion, the Master Summoner of Roke, by merely defying the spell he uses in an attempt to command her.
The reason his spell failed is because to command someone a wizard needs their true name, but since Irian is only part of Dragonfly's true name, the spell was not enough. And then there is what Dragonfly truly is, because when she cries out that her name is not only Irian there are flashes of flame, scales, and wings around her. The story ends with her telling her friends among the wizards that she is going west, to those who will give her her other name, and she transforms into a dragon to head west, where the dragons fly.
It's a bit of a quirky ending since Dragonfly only figures out part of the puzzle, that she is a dragon. It's no doubt even quirkier for those unfamiliar with Earthsea (since this story was originally published stand alone) and can't figure out how someone can be born human, but really be a dragon.
Le Guin answer some of this in the excellent "A Description of Earthsea" in the back of the book. It's longer than some of the stories! In it she discusses the differences between sorcerors, wizards, and witches within the context of Earthsea, historial matters both of the world in general and the wizards of Roke, and perhaps most fascinatingly the passages about dragons, humans, and their shared origin. This book is a worthwhile addition to what Tehanu started. Just skip over that "Darkrose and Diamond" and enjoy the rest. The fan in me wishes Le Guin had written a story about the in-between years after Ged had gotten the Ring of Erreth-Akbe and before he became Archmage, but at least "On the High Marsh" allows for more Ged. I hope The Other Wind will be as good.