“The Farthest Shore” and “Tehanu” were written almost 20 years apart, but they are the only books in the Earthsea quartet that have a continuous storyline. Ged leaves the furthest reaches of Earthsea in “The Farthest Shore” by air and returns to the island of his birth, Gont in “Tehanu”.
Despite this, there is still a certain distance between the two books, which is a facet, I particularly like about the Earthsea quartet.
The narrator of “Tehanu” is Tenar, known from “The Tombs of Atuan“. She is now an elderly woman, living in what anonymity a foreigner can achieve on the island of Gont. Tenar is a widow with grown up children, who saves a burnt, abandoned child and cares for it as her own. She tends to Ogion, who the reader will remember from “A Wizard of Earthsea” when he is on his deathbed and his dying words instruct her to teach the child everything.
“Tehanu” is about being without (magical) powers. Tenar and Ged have been powerful and esteemed in many ways: Tenar as priestess, foreigner, wife, and mother, and Ged as wizard, Archmage, teacher, and explorer. Now, they have both lost those labels and are confronted by their powerlessness – especially as they try to care for and protect the child.
I have read other reviews that speak of the gender issues of “Tehanu“. Sure, there is a female narrator and feminine qualities are apparent in the story, but the attention to the characters’ emotional development is the heart of the Earthsea quartet and Ursula Le Guin’s writing and not specific to “Tehanu“.
In my opinion, “Tehanu” is more about coming to terms with your essence – realizing that even without your title, magical powers, fancy job, [insert your own identifier here] you are someone.
The Earthsea quartet viewed collectively also illustrates this. “A Wizard of Earthsea” is about coming into power. “The Tombs of Atuan” is about the choices power entails. “The Farthest Shore” is about the point of view of the observer and being willing to abandon the power, and finally “Tehanu” is after the power, so to speak.
I would recommend the Earthsea quartet to children and adults alike. The stories are intelligent, fantastic (in several definitions of the word), and entertaining. I would also recommend the Earthsea quartet to writers, who want to see how beautifully character development can be portrayed.