A young boy is sent to wizard school, where he learns to control his great natural skill at wizardry. In time, he becomes known as the most gifted wizard of them all--which is good, because he'll need all his talents to defeat an evil, shadowy force connected intimately to him for mysterious reasons.
Sound familiar? Yes, of course it does: It's Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, which tells the story of Ged, who accidentally creates a rip between the land of the living and the dead, allowing a horrible "shadow creature" to enter the world. (How great can this guy be if he's the one that caused the problem in the first place, though?) The extent to which Ged's story of self-discovery mirrors another, later story reveals how well-worn some of these fantasy tropes are, I suppose.
What sets A Wizard of Earthsea apart? Not much, if you ask me--I find most fantasy pretty underwhelming, and Earthsea felt very much limited by the confines of its genre. A couple elements did stand out, though: First, the setting of Earthsea, a massive island chain, provided a unique bit of atmosphere. Second, magic in Earthsea operates in a very interesting way. To have power over something, a wizard must know its name in the original and natural "true language." Every animal, thing, place, and person has a "true name," many of which are kept hidden. What is so threatening about the shadow creature that Ged looses is that it lacks a name, and cannot be controlled or defended against, and so becomes a chilling image of the ineffability of death, which refuses to be sufficiently described in human language.
The last few chapters of Earthsea go far in elevating it above similar books. In them, Ged chases the shadow to the limits of Earthsea, an unknown part of the ocean that slowly thickens into land. The final meeting with the shadow creature is fairly cryptic for what is ostensibly a young adult book:
Aloud and clearly, breaking the old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged." And the two voices were one voice.
Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.
What's going on here? Is this an illustration of the reality principle, the need for man to confront his own death and comes to terms with it? Does LeGuin suggest that what we battle in our fear of death is not death itself, but us? That's pretty heady stuff, and a lot more interesting than the wizard-school and dragon-fighting that make up most of the book.