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This illustrated collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books finally does the series justice

Fifty years ago, science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin released A Wizard of Earthsea, the first installment of a well-lauded and influential fantasy series. Sadly, Le Guin passed away in January, but later this year, one of her final projects will be released. One that, after years of frustrations, has been a long time coming: a collected edition of her Earthsea works from Saga Press, The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, featuring nearly 60 illustrations by fantasy artist Charles Vess.

By 1968, Le Guin had established a promising career as a science fiction author, and was soon approached by a publisher with an invitation: they wanted to write a book aimed at a younger audience. While she was apprehensive at writing for children at first, she settled on a world that she’d used in a pair of short fantasy stories years before, “The Rule of Names,” and “The Word of Unbinding,” set on an archipelago. “Serious consideration of magic, and of writing for kids, combined to make me wonder about wizards,” she later wrote. “Wizards are usually elderly or ageless Gandalfs, quite rightly and archetypically. But what were they before they had white beards?”

The result was A Wizard of Earthsea, which followed a young islander named Ged, who has innate magical powers and is invited by a great wizard to learn how to use his power. He’s impatient to learn, and accidentally summons a shadow creature, and is forced to chase it down across the archipelago, and reckon with his power. This was a novel concept in the 1960s: fantasy literature was largely in its infancy with Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series decades away. Le Guin went on to write four subsequent novels set in the same world: The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, and The Other Wind.

There have been some special editions of A Wizard of Earthsea before, like the stunning Folio Society edition that came out a couple of years ago. But this edition will be the first time that Le Guin’s sprawling epic, heretofore known collectively as the Earthsea Cycle, will be collected in one place. The Books of Earthsea contains all five novels, as well as Tales From Earthsea, a collection of short stories set in the world, and Earthsea Revisioned: A Lecture at Oxford University. It’ll be a massive tome, weighing in at just over a thousand pages.

Art: Charles Vess

Saga Press’ editorial director Joe Monti tells The Verge that the project was something he wanted to do from “day one,” when he joined Simon & Schuster’s Saga Press in 2013. Last November the imprint released several collected editions of the late author’s work under his supervision. (Library of America likewise released an omnibus edition of some of her work with The Hainish Novels & Stories, Volume One and Volume 2 last year, as well.) While they had long wanted to tackle a comprehensive volume of Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, something in the vein of the many omnibus editions of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Monti says that “Ursula was reticent” to the idea, having “been burned over the last several of decades” by creative partners that never listened or accepted her creative vision.

One notable example was the disastrous 2004 Syfy channel (then SCI FI) adaptation of the first two installments of the series, Earthsea, which starred white actor Shawn Ashmore in the role of dark-skinned islander Ged. Le Guin penned a fiery response, calling the miniseries a “far cry from the Earthsea I envisioned,” and that the “producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.”

Monti notes that this treatment was typical; Le Guin had set out to write a story that was pointedly not in the framework of The Lord of the Rings, only to have the stories marketed in much the same fashion. For Monti, this collected edition is a way to right that collective wrong by working closely with Le Guin to ensure that her vision of the world translated into the omnibus’s 58 illustrations.

Art: Charles Vess

To capture Le Guin’s vision, Monti brought on acclaimed fantasy artist Charles Vess, who had worked alongside authors like Neil Gaiman. Besides being a fan of Vess’ art, Monti “knew, more importantly, that his personality and ethos would dovetail with hers,” and that in a number of instances, Le Guin has been drawn into a collaborative process only to have her ideas shut out by the artist. “Charles was always open to — and encouraged — dialogue,” Monti says. The result was a years-long collaboration, in which Vess and Le Guin worked closely together to hone each of the book’s illustrations until it best represented Le Guin’s vision of the world.

Art: Charles Vess

Vess, a longtime reader of Le Guin and particular fan of the Earthsea novels, says that when he was initially approached four years ago to work on the book, “Ursula wanted to talk to whoever he was interested in illustrating the book, and she wanted to like them. So I spent a very nervous weekend waiting to talk to her on Monday.” After their initial “great conversation,” he learned that she “didn’t believe anything I said, because every artist she’d worked with said ‘we’d love to collaborate,’ and she never heard from them again,” he recalls. “That wasn’t the case with me.”

Art: Charles Vess

Over the next four years, Vess worked with her constantly, showing her his initial sketches, pencil and ink drawings as he progressed. “I had a lot of feedback,” he says. “She kept me on my toes.” He explains that some illustrations went through six or seven versions before they were satisfied with the end result. “We spent a year going back and forth over what her dragons looked like.”

That obsession over the details extended not just to characters or creatures, but the look and feel of the world that she clearly envisioned. “She definitely wanted more showing that the people lived on the land, that they were farmers, peasants, and common people tilling their gardens,” Vess says. “She wanted very little of the Great Golden Hall of Wizardry, [with] princes and kings. So there’s quite a few drawings that are inside of a garden, or tending goats or whatever.”

Art: Charles Vess

Le Guin was particularly concerned that the book’s central characters were depicted accurately as people of color. “Up until that time [when the book was first published], every fantasy epic ever was full of the blond-haired, blue-eyed male heroes.” Le Guin’s father was a noted anthropologist, and as a young child, she had traveled around the world with him. “She knew about the world out there, and she wanted to put that in her book.”

Monti says that she told him that her “collaboration with Charles was ‘magic’,” and that he essentially made the decision to leave them alone to work on their own to depict the world that she had for so long not seen depicted. “One of the things I’ve learned in illustration is, the better the writing you work with, the better your art will be,” Vess explains. “It will pull things out of you that you never thought you had.”

Though Le Guin will unfortunately never see the final version of the book, she did see the final illustrations before she died in January. “And now,” she wrote in the introduction to the book, “with this first fully illustrated complete Earthsea, I can let Charles Vess’s art speak for itself.”

The Books of Earthsea will hit stores on October 23rd, 2018.

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