Welcome to Fantasy Island: Population 280 million.

On the heels of Harry Potter, young adult books are sweeping the mainland. Why would grownups rather read about sorcery than sex?

But Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series is my baseline: a narrative written with such simple beauty and complex intelligence that it reads at once like fable and spiritual parable. In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), a humble goatherd becomes a wizard by chasing an evil shadow he finally recognizes is his. In The Tombs of Atuan (1971), the wizard Ged travels to a foreign land to recover the Ring Erreth-Akbe. In the labyrinthine underground tunnels there he finds an arrogant girl, a living god to her people, trapped in her privilege. In helping to liberate her, he frees a buried female aspect of himself. The Farthest Shore (1972) takes Ged to the land of the dead, where he sacrifices his dearest possession to keep light in the world.

Books have been written glossing LeGuin's influences and references; I'm not going to even try. What's most significant to me is that she went back to her tale to worry one of the most cherished tropes of YA fantasy: the idea of a "chosen," fated hero. In a sense, all protagonists are chosen people, because the author has chosen to focus on them. But the concept of fated heroes, so often male in the past, has been troubling to me as an adult reader of fantasy. I'm not more special than anyone else. My actions do not resonate across the world(s). At the same time we always need heroes to jolt us into movement. (Wellstone, rest in action.) What I find myself craving in YA fantasy is average protagonists, compelled by events to discover themselves capable of heroic acts--the Frodo Baggins type. Perhaps the many writers now entering YA fantasy are looking for that too.

Almost 20 years after The Tombs of Atuan was published, LeGuin wrote Tehanu (1990), which tells the story of the girl Ged freed after the hero's spotlight moved on. Tenar was the "chosen" once, but now she's just a middle-aged woman whose children have left and whose husband has died. She has no power. Neither has Ged, whose great magic has fled. And yet they rub together a power out of their bare hands, out of compassion, and it changes things. Tehanu was not marketed to teens. It should've been.

LeGuin has published two more Earthsea books since. In them, power is mysterious. It doesn't always come, like a dog, to somebody's call. The series keeps shifting and changing, as the writer does.

It's true that Lyra and Will, of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, are fated heroes in the worst way, with everybody seeing prophecies in them and chasing them. But through The Golden Compass (1995), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000), we're told again and again that if the two children come to know in advance the importance of their choices, they will fail. They are fighting in the dark. And so is the reader, who must forge through very bleak times with Lyra, an apparent orphan from a parallel world--18th century Oxford--and Will, a refugee from modern-day Oxford.

Pullman is one of the few writers I know of in any genre who can fully convince the reader that the protagonists will falter. And the stakes here are cosmic: what happens to the dead; who rules heaven and earth; whether humans strive to know their world and themselves, or follow strict commandments; how much the reader will allow her cosmologies to be overturned and dismantled. Thank heaven for the talking bears (in armor), ageless witches, angels decent and nasty, sucking ghosties, and harpies. These characters, too, make choices that shape the outcome of the story.

Lyra and Will's journey is to a new Eden, but the real battle is over who controls "dust"--tiny magic sprinkles that you could clumsily label as self-consciousness, spirit, soul. "Dust loves matter," one scientist observes. She may as well have said, "Dust matters." Or, "Matter dusts." Dust to dust goes matter, and in between we tell stories. Some stories are magic. They go to the border places: twilight and dawn; adolescence and middle age and old age. All the spaces between safety where we are trying to become greater than our present selves. Diana Wynne Jones argues that, in adult fiction, writers are discouraged to mix science fiction with fantasy, witches with physics. But mixing is magic. Let down your foul categories (in books, politics, friendship). Cross the barriers. Listen.

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