Audio-book review: The Runes of the Earth read by Anton Lesser

Synopsis
In 1977, Stephen Donaldson changed the face of epic fantasy with the publication of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Thomas Covenant is struck down with a disease believed eradicated; he is abandoned by his wife and son and becomes a pariah. Alone and despairing, Covenant falls, and is drawn into a mysterious new world, where gentle people work magic and the earth itself brings healing. He is welcomed as the reincarnation of a legendary saviour, but Covenant refuses to believe. At the end of the sixth book, as Covenant battles to save the world, he is killed, in both worlds, as Dr. Linden Avery, his horrified companion, looks on.

It’s 10 years later, and Linden Avery thought she would never see the Land, or Covenant, again. But Lord Foul has stolen her adopted son, and is unmaking the very laws of nature. And though she believes Covenant dead, he keeps sending Linden messages: "Find me", and "Don’t trust me". The Land is in turmoil, and Lord Foul has plans for them all.

Review
This audio-book proved to be tough-going. Reading the original books was also tough-going but they had the redemptive quality of being ultimately highly rewarding. I am afraid The Runes of the Earth is simply tough-going.

If pushed to name the one thing that I found most annoying about this audio-book I would have to go with the overly dramatic moments that plagued it. You could almost visualise an exclamation mark ever paragraph – Foul, you bastard! How could he! The Land is dying! I’ve forgotten to brush my teeth! etc… etc…

Added to this, Linden Avery cuts a rather unsympathetic and annoying lead, and Anele is a nerve-grating addition to the cast.

Anton Lesser struggles manfully, his stock narrative voice excellent but his portrayal of individual characters not quite as strong. I’m afraid that this audio-book and The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are just not for me, which is a shame considering that the original six books are works that I will always remember fondly.

There is, however, an excellent and fascinating interview with Stephen Donaldson after the reading has finished.

We Rate It5-stars

About the author and narrator
Stephen R. Donaldson came to prominence in 1977 with the The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a story that centred around a leper shunned by society and his trials and tribulations as his destiny unfolds. These books established Stephen Donaldson as one of the most important figures in modern fantasy fiction.

British actor Anton Lesser has played many of the principal Shakespearian roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. He is also very active in radio and spoken word audio and is particularly known for the major novels of Charles Dickens, with Great Expectations winning the Talkie Award.

The Tombs of Atuan (unabridged) read by Karen Archer

the-tombs-of-atuan Synopsis
In the legends of Earthsea, it is said that the wizard and king Erreth-Akbe was defeated by the high priest of the Kargad lands, and his amulet of power, bearing the rune of bonding, was broken and was lost.

Now, in the second book of Earthsea, the wizard Sparrowhawk enters the menacing labyrinth of the Tombs of Atuan to regain the amulet, and restore the rune which will bring peace to all of the islands of Earthsea.

Yet the labyrinth has a guardian, a young princess called Arha, whose life is dedicated to the the dark spirits who inhabit the tombs. She is determined that Sparrowhawk will meet the fate the befell Erreth-Akbe long ago.

Review
The Tombs of Atuan follows on from A Wizard of Earthsea but there is a distinctly different feel to the story. Featuring a predominantly female cast and set mainly in the location of the Tombs it is a departure from its predecessor. Those expecting simply more of Sparrowhawk and his voyages will be in for a surprise. Ursula Le Guin again shows the power of names introduced in A Wizard of Earthsea, and the themes of light and shadow, good and evil are again evident. It is a courageous and compelling sequel.

Karen Archer’s narration is first-rate and her pacing and delivery are once again perfect.

About the reader
To all of her performances, Karen Archer brings a seamless fluidity and humanity combined with precision  and attention to detail. These qualities have made her a familiar voice in the many documentaries she has recorded for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Karen has made numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio, twice being a member of BBC Radio Drama Company. Her work in the theatre includes classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and contemporary roles such as Annie Wilkes in an adaptation of Steven King’s novel Misery. Her extensive  television work has included Assistant Chief Constable Anne Stewart in the police drama series The Chief and Queen Elizabeth I in David Starkey’s acclaimed historical series, Elizabeth.

Karen has read a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for Naxos Audio Books. For Craftsman, she has also recorded the complete Snow-Walker trilogy by renowned fantasy author Catherine Fisher and the critically-acclaimed recording of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Karen says of its sequel, The Tombs of Atuan:

“Ursula Le Guin’s evocation of atmosphere and place is quite breathtaking. But it is her overriding belief in the enduring goodness of one human spirit in the face of evil that is at the core of this book, connecting Earthsea to the here-and-now.’’

About the author
Ursula K. Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in 1929 in Berkeley, California. Her mother was a writer and her father an anthropologist. Her childhood was spent in a household filled with talk, argument and discussion surrounded by books, music and story-telling. As the only daughter in her family, the absence of her 3 elder brothers during World War Two made the summers at home lonely ones. Yet she considers those long days as a teenager, wandering the hills, of great importance: ‘I think I started making my soul then’ Ursula says. With a love of languages, she studied French and Italian literature at Radcliffe College. In 1953, in Paris, she married the historian Charles A. Le Guin. A very private person, Ursula Le Guin has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Portland, Oregon.

She has published six books of poetry, twenty novels, over a hundred short stories, four collections of essays, eleven books for children, and four volumes of translation and says of the work of authorship: “Writing is my craft. I honour it deeply. To have a craft, to be able to work at it, is to be honoured by it.”

The books in the Earthsea cycle were first published to great acclaim in 1968 with A Wizard of Earthsea. Millions of copies have subsequently been sold and the books have been translated into 16 languages. Ursula says:

“Exploring the Archipelago, discovering the rules of magic and what happens when you break them, the things I learned in Earthsea and the people I met there – that’s been a great part of my life for nearly forty years. And a great part of the joy of it is knowing that I share it with my readers.”

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, read by Simon Prebble

jonathan-strange-mr-norrell-audiobookThe following is a review of the audio-book edition of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, narrated by Simon Prebble and first released in December 2004.

English magicians were once the wonder of the known world, with fairy servants at their beck and call; they could command winds, mountains, and woods. But by the early 1800s they have long since lost the ability to perform magic. They can only write long, dull papers about it, while fairy servants are nothing but a fading memory.

But at Hurtfew Abbey in Yorkshire, the rich, reclusive Mr. Norrell has assembled a wonderful library of lost and forgotten books from England’s magical past and regained some of the powers of England’s magicians. He goes to London and raises a beautiful young woman from the dead. Soon he is lending his help to the government in the war against Napoleon Bonaparte, creating ghostly fleets of rain-ships to confuse and alarm the French.

All goes well until a rival magician appears. Jonathan Strange is handsome, charming, and talkative, the very opposite of Mr. Norrell. Strange thinks nothing of enduring the rigors of campaigning with Wellington’s army and doing magic on battlefields. Astonished to find another practicing magician, Mr. Norrell accepts Strange as a pupil. But it soon becomes clear that their ideas of what English magic ought to be are very different…

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is arguably one of the finest fantasy books ever written. This audio telling of Susanna Clarke’s book is undeniably the best that I have listened to so far.

It is a BIG book. It requires a good thirty-two hours of listening and, like the book itself, requires commitment. Those who do commit will be amply rewarded with a story that is performed by the admirable Mr Simon Prebble. As the narrative moves from Yorkshire to London, from France to Venice, Prebble seamlessly adopts authentic accents for both the male and female characters. No bigger compliment can be paid other than saying that the recording sounds like it has been performed by a cast of unique performers. Norrell’s timidity; Strange’s arrogance; the man with thistle-down hair’s inherent malicious mischief; Lady Pole’s indifference; Drawlight’s sycophancy; Lacell’s mean spiritedness – all these character traits are brought to life by the narrator’s voice.

This audiobook adaptation of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was shortlisted for Audible’s Listen of the Year, 2006 and has been one of the top ten downloaded fantasy since its release.

We spoke to Simon Prebble regarding the recording of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell:

Fantasy Book Review: The total reading of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is over 32 hours. How daunting is it to work on a project of this size, containing so many different characters and featuring such extensive footnotes?

Simon Prebble: Don’t remind me! At an average ratio of two hours in the studio for each hour recorded it was a long concentrated time behind the microphone… so the key to narrating such a massive book is prepping and pacing. Your initial reading of the book is preparation, in order to get the overall shape and mood, to map the plot, and especially to find the voices of the characters. To do that, like a lot of narrators, I visualise them (often using various character actors from the TV or the movies) to give me a mental cue when reading. Unlike a lot of narrators, I rarely mark up my scripts, but when recording ‘Strange and Norrell’ there were so many characters that to avoid getting lost I had to make notes… but not footnotes! This incidentally was an area that I had strong feelings about. I believe that the numerous footnotes in the book should have been read either on a separate track on the CD or at least at the end of the sentence in which they appeared… not in the middle of the sentence. With some of those faux footnotes over several pages long it seemed absurd to me to go back to the sentence from which they sprang. My producer disagreed. I feel somewhat vindicated however since several reviewers remarked on the odd method. With regards to pacing… when you are recording day after day, eight hours at a stretch, you need to physically as well as mentally pace yourself, so there is a consistency of energy, and comprehension, and especially characterisation.”

“Notwithstanding our ‘creative differences’ on the footnotes, my producer was a godsend on this project. He may have held the reins, so to speak, but he let me ride with it. We had a mutual trust that was essential in such a large project, and I remember saying to him very early on in the recording that this book and the recording was something quite unique. It certainly seems to have turned out that way… even though Susanna Clarke says that, when writing it, she heard a woman’s voice! However, from what I can gather from her website she was quite happy with my interpretation.”

This is one of – if not – the best fantasy audio-book available – highly recommended.

9.7/10

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (unabridged) by Susanna Clarke
Narrated by Simon Prebble
Length: 32 hours, 36 minutes
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand read by Steven Pacey

The Amulet of Samarkand audio-book cover.I had not previously come across the name of Steven Pacey but now, after listening to him read Jonathan Stroud’s The Amulet of Samarkand, he has now been added to my list of favourite narrators, alongside Frank Muller, Roy Dotrice, Simon Prebble, Sean Barrett and George Guidall.

Pacey narrates the first book in the Bartimaeus Trilogy with perfect pace, using an assortment of excellent and appropriate accents. But most importantly of all he manages to replicate the delightful sense of humour – which is a Stroud trademark – into the narrative.

Pacey does of course have the perfect material on which to use his skills. When the 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus is summoned by Nathaniel, a young magician’s apprentice, he expects to have to do nothing more taxing than a little levitation or a few simple illusions. But Nathaniel is a precocious talent and has something rather more dangerous in mind: revenge. Against his will, Bartimaeus is packed off to steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a master magician of unrivalled ruthlessness and ambition. Before long, both djinni and apprentice are caught up in a terrifying flood of magical intrigue, murder and rebellion. The Amulet of Samarkand is an absorbing tale of magicians and demons, a Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell for the younger reader.

This is one of the very best fantasy audio-books. The book was written by a highly skilled author and now read by a highly skilled actor. Bartimaeus is one of the finest additions to the fantasy genre in recent years and Pacey’s portrayal of the irascible djinni is perfect. This audio-book is very highly recommended, one of the very best.

9/10

The Amulet of Samarkand (abridged) by Jonathan Stroud
Narrated by Steven Pacey
Length: 9 hours, 33 minutes
Publisher: Random House AudioBooks

Audio-book review: The Spook’s Apprentice read by Daniel Weyman

The Spook's Apprentice Audio-book image Thomas Ward is the seventh son of a seventh son and has been apprenticed to the local Spook. The job is hard, the Spook is distant, and many apprentices have failed before Thomas. Somehow, Thomas must learn how to exorcise ghosts, contain witches and bind boggarts. But when he is tricked into freeing Mother Malkin, the most evil witch in the county, the horror begins.

This abridged reading of the first book in Joseph Delaney’s delightfully dark Wardstone Chronicles is professionally told by Daniel Weyman. He gives all the characters life; in particular The Spook himself that Weyman gives the gruff and no-nonsense demeanour that fans will recognise from the book. And Thomas Ward, the young lad whose tale this is, is given the innocence, naivety and wide-eyed wonder that perfectly matches his character in the book.

There are moments in the book that were brilliantly creepy and fraught with tension and the narrator has managed to retain these emotions in his tellling. This is a brilliant book, well told, and definitely recommended.

We Rate It 8 stars

Running Time: 2 hours and 56 minutes. First published in July 2007 by Random House AudioBooks.

Daniel Weyman has appeared in Sam West’s Sheffield Crucible production of As You Like It and the Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of David Edgar’s The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. He has also narrated Avenger, Meltdown and Payback, all titles by Andy McNab.

Joseph Delaney is a retired English teacher living in Lancashire. His home is in the middle of Boggart territory and his village has a boggart called the Hall Knocker, which was laid to rest under the step of a house near the church. The Spook’s Apprentice spent 7 weeks in the Best-seller charts and sold over 35,000 copies in the first few months.

Audio-book review: Winnie the Pooh read by Alan Bennett

Winnie-the-Pooh read by Alan Bennett CD image Alan Bennett reads AA Milne’s much loved stories about a small bear and his friends

What is the connection between a Bear of Very Little Brain and a honey pot? Usually it’s the very sticky paw of Winnie-the-Pooh, as he takes a break between adventures for ‘a little something’.

In these five stories, taken from the book Winnie-the-Pooh, Pooh goes visiting and gets into a tight place, Eeyore loses a tail, Piglet meets a Heffalump, Eeyore has a birthday and gets two presents, and an expotition is mounted to the North Pole!

As usual they are accompanied by Kanga, Roo, Rabbit and Owl – to say nothing of Pooh’s very clever young human friend, Christopher Robin.

Alan Bennett remains faithful to AA Milne’s creations and gives the lovable characters the voices the author meant them to have. The five stories are told in a charming and unhurried way that will enchant children and adults alike.

We Rate It 8 stars

The recording was previously released on cassette in 1984, 1993 and 1998. Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes.

Alan Bennett has been a household name in British theatre ever since he starred and co-authored the satirical review Beyond the Fringe with Dudley Moore, Peter Cooke and Jonathan Miller in 1960 at the Edinburgh Festival.

AA Milne biography

The Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick, read by Derek Jacobi

Rating 9.0/10

A timeless tale told by an ageless actor.

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The Book of Dead Days audio-book coverThe days between 27 December and New Year’s Eve are dead days – days when spirits roam and magic shifts restlessly just beneath the surface of our everyday lives. There is a man, Valerian, whose time is running out, who must pay the price for the pact he made with evil so many years ago. His servant is Boy, a child with no name and no past; a child he treats with contempt, but who serves his master well and finds solace in the company of his only friend, Willow. Unknown to any of them, it is Boy who holds the key to their destiny.

Set in dark threatening cities and the frozen countryside in a distant time and place of the author’s making, ‘The Book of Dead Days’ conjures a spell-binding story of sorcery and desperate magic as Valerian, Boy and Willow battle to stop time and cling to life. Beautifully evoked, dramatic and emotionally powerful.

Derek Jacobi is wonderful narrator and already well-known in fantasy circles for his wonderful readings of JRR Tolkien‘s Farmer Giles of Ham, CS Lewis‘s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Kenneth Grahame‘s The Wind in the Willows to name but three.

In Marcus Sedgwick’s marvelously dark and atmospheric tale he has a story worthy of his talents. The major strength of this recording is in the way that Jacobi manages to bring this enduring tale to life – the sinister old European city setting is terrifically realistic and the magnificent characters make this an enchanting audio experience. You can almost smell the open sewers of the city.

From a book that is skilfully written comes an audio-book that is expertly read. The Book of Dead Days audio-book is a real must for those looking for a timeless tale told by an ageless actor.

Marcus Sedgwick was born in Kent in 1968 and is an acclaimed children’s author and illustrator.

Sedgwick is renowned for the dark-themes that he incorporates into his young-adult novels. His first book Floodland was published in 2000, winning the Branford Boase Book Award for best debut children’s novel.

“I remember consciously thinking before I wrote it that the city was going to be a character, a gift for the gothic. It’s really beautiful, but rotting to pieces at the same time. The 18th century was when it was considered at its most beautiful but also at its most debauched.” Marcus Sedgwick: Venice and The Kiss of Death.

Sir Derek George Jacobi CBE is an English actor and film director, knighted in 1994 for his services to theatre. Like Laurence Olivier, he bears the distinction of holding two knighthoods, Danish and British. He is regarded to have one of the most outstanding speaking voices ever, with studied tonality and an exceptional elocution in drama.

Watership Down (abridged) read by Roy Dotrice

Rating 9.2/10

Richard Adams’s wonderful book is told by an audio-book reader of sublime skill.

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Image: Watership Down audio-book cover Hazel, Bigwig, Fiver and a band of selected rabbits leave their threatened warren and set out on an epic and dangerous journey in this classic animal story.

Playing time: 2 hours 57 minutes

Richard Adams’s wonderful book is told by an audio-book reader of sublime skill. Roy Dotrice portrays each and every rabbit with a voice that suits perfectly and enhances, rather than diminishes, the enjoyment already attained from the written word.

Roy Dotrice is a distinguished English actor who won many awards for his one-man show Brief Lives and enjoyed recent success as Charles Dickens in the TV series Dickens of London.

Richard Adams worked as a civil servant before his remarkable ability to convey the spirit of the animal world in bestsellers such as Watership Down, Shardik and the The Plague Dogs made him a household name.

Why are fantasy films and books so popular?

Fantasy films and books are stories that often involve adventures, battles or journeys usually in a made up, fictional and supernatural world. This lends itself to the creation of mythical and fascinating creatures, characters with unusual abilities and interesting discoveries and challenges along the way. The only limit to a fantasy book or film is imagination as everything is possible within the fantasy genre.

The reason that fantasy is so popular for both adults and children alike is that they offer escapism from work or school into a different realm. If you’re reading about elves or magic then the worries of business, homework or housework are forgotten and everyone can let their imagination run wild. This is probably the reason that fantasy is such a broad category and unites almost everyone, from the elderly to those just starting to read, or to take an interest in films.

Some of the most popular films and books in the fantasy genre include:

  • Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. This popular trilogy focuses on one hobbit’s (a fictional character) journey into the evil realm of Mordor to throw a powerful and dark ring into a volcano and destroy it. On his journey he meets many fantastical creatures such as elves, talking trees, wizards, dwarves and orcs. Peter Jackson’s film trilogy of the books has also allowed younger people, or those who are not keen readers, to experience Tolkien’s epic style.
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The stories begin with Lyra, a girl from Oxford, but then move away into the realm of fantasy as every person has a daemon, which is their soul portrayed in animal form which accompanies them. Lyra’s adventures with armoured bears and flying witches litter the first book with fantastical imagination and the second and third books in the trilogy fail to disappoint.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. C.S.Lewis’ series of seven books has long been respected as one of the top series in the fantasy genre. The books are mostly set in the magical world of Narnia, where the characters encounter fawns, magic, Aslan the lion, and mystical and intriguing characters and settings.
  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling. This is one of the most modern series of fantasy books and needs little introduction. Harry Potter discovers he’s a wizard and is sent to Hogwarts school to train to be a wizard and channel his magic. His battle with the Dark Lord continues throughout the seven books, meeting endearing and frightening characters that enchant the reader’s imagination.
  • Shannara by Terry Brooks. This is a series of epic fantasy set on Earth long after civilisation has been destroyed. It focuses on magic, elves and faerie and epitomises the fantasy genre.

Fantasy books are often memorable to children and adults, who want to read and reread their favourite stories. Book scanning is a service that allows people to upload their books on to the computer and could save space in homes and safely preserve the classic fantasy stories.

A Wizard Of Earthsea (unabridged) read by Karen Archer

Rating 9.3/10

The pacing and delivery of Karen Archer is exemplary.

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A Wizard of Earthsea audio-book He was born on the island of Gont, a land famous for pirates, goatherds and… wizards. The boy Ged begins an epic journey that takes him to Roke, the Isle of the Wise, where the skills of wizardry are learnt. There, in pride and anger, he summons a dark and malevolent spirit that sorcery cannot conquer. Pursued by this menace, Ged must flee across the oceans and islands of Earthsea, searching for a means to defeat it.

One of the great landmarks of fantasy, Ursula Le Guin’s novel set the benchmark for all future writers.

Review
This is audio-book perfection; the pacing and delivery of Karen Archer is exemplary. The voices that she conjures for all all the individual characters are impressively unique and her attention to detail shines throughout this production. Craftsman and Archer are of course fortunate to have a book of the quality of Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to work with but they do it full justice. The tracks on the recording are split into segments of 2-3 minutes and this allows the listener to easily find where they left off and the music, by the Renaissance Players accompanies the story well but without being intrusive.

I cannot fault this recording in any way; all punctuation is correctly observed and there is nothing not up to scratch. This audio-book is ideal for those wanting to escape to a land of sea, wizards and dragons; a thought-provoking tale of dangerous pride and acceptance – this audio-book sits comfortably next to its printed twin on the classics shelf.

This audio-book is available from the main sources: Amazon and Play.com but also from specialists like London’s Talking Bookshop in Baker Street.

Karen Archer To all of her performances, Karen Archer brings a seamless fluidity and humanity combined with precision and attention to detail. These qualities have made her a familiar voice in the many documentaries she has recorded for National Geographic and Discovery Channel. Karen has made numerous broadcasts for BBC Radio, twice being a member of BBC Radio Drama Company. Her work in the theatre includes classics such as Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts and contemporary roles such as Annie Wilkes in an adaptation of Steven King’s novel Misery. Her extensive television work has included Assistant Chief Constable Anne Stewart in the police drama series The Chief and Queen Elizabeth I in David Starkey’s acclaimed historical series, Elizabeth. Karen has read a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for Naxos Audio Books. For Craftsman, she has also recorded the complete Snow-Walker trilogy by renowned fantasy author Catherine Fisher. Karen says of A Wizard of Earthsea: “The tremendous reputation of this book preceded it. It was a wonderful challenge for an actor and I was delighted to be part of this new British unabridged recording.”

Ursula Le Guin Ursula Le Guin was born Ursula Kroeber in 1929 in Berkeley, California. Her mother was a writer and her father an anthropologist. Her childhood was spent in a household filled with talk, argument and discussion surrounded by books, music and story-telling. As the only daughter in her family, the absence of her 3 elder brothers during World War Two made the summers at home lonely ones. Yet she considers those long days as a teenager, wandering the hills, of great importance: ‘I think I started making my soul then’ Ursula says. With a love of languages, she studied French and Italian literature at Radcliffe College. In 1953, in Paris, she married the historian Charles A. Le Guin. A very private person, Ursula Le Guin has three children, three grandchildren and lives in Portland, Oregon. She has published six books of poetry, twenty novels, over a hundred short stories, four collections of essays, eleven books for children, and four volumes of translation and says of the work of authorship: “Writing is my craft. I honour it deeply. To have a craft, to be able to work at it, is to be honoured by it.”

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first book of the Earthsea cycle, was first published to great acclaim in 1968. Millions of copies have subsequently been sold and the Earthsea books have been translated into 16 languages. Ursula says: “Exploring the Archipelago, discovering the rules of magic and what happens when you break them, the things I learned in Earthsea and the people I met there – that’s been a great part of my life for nearly forty years. And a great part of the joy of it is knowing that I share it with my readers.”
© Marian Wood Kolisch