Big readers know the feeling of picking up one of those “great books,” reading for a bit, and hating their life. See, sometimes the “great books” don’t seem very good when you read them. So you’re left going “was everyone else stupid? Does the book just not age well? Am I just actually someone with terrible taste?”
I almost gave up about a dozen times in the first three Earthsea books. Sure, they’ve got a lot of great things to say. But they’re as unsubtle as an anvil, sometimes overwhelmed by the ’60s that gave birth to them. Many early scifi writers had the same issue, and the books age terribly. There’s pages upon pages monologues and snoozeworthy pages’worth of description.
And the characters–they’re just bad. In an afterword, LeGuin says that she is interested in writing fantasy that reflects the world she sees. That’s what the characters are–pale reflections, shadow puppets. Cool to watch, but not worth investing in. And no one talks like a person; Tolkein syndrome but not as pretty as Tolkein so she can’t get away with it.
Then I started reading Tehanu. Seriously, what happened in between The Farthest Shore and Tehanu? Tehanu’s characters are beautiful, they’re real, they breathe. There’s no “the old gives the young wisdom” that was basically all of The Farthest Shore, no uncomfortably simplified stories like in Tombs of Atuan (although I like that one the best of the first three), and little of the unsubtlety that was the ultimate flaw of the first book. It’s really, really good.