Matters continue to race forward in Magician’s Gambit, the third volume in David Eddings’ magnificent Belgariad. The company is drawing closer to the place where the sinister Grolim Ctuchik has hidden the Orb of Aldur, and along the way they encounter both the desolate land of Maragor, site of the horrific genocide that exterminated the Marags, as well as the Ulgos, subterranean servants of the god UL. Finally, they arrive in Cthol Murgos and a terrible confrontation takes place between Belgarath and Ctuchik, which results in the destruction of the latter.
In this novel, the final contours of the great struggle taking place between the forces of darkness and light begin to emerge, as well as the powers that Garion has been born to wield. It becomes clear that he is fated to wield tremendous power, though he has yet to fully figure out how to use it. What is especially refreshing about this is that it reveals that Eddings has clearly thought a lot about how magic works in this universe. It’s not one of those cases where a simple wave of the hand one can command things to be. Instead, the Will and the World are about balance and structure and, in keeping with the fundamental laws of physics, nothing can be actually unmade. And while there are other boundaries–such as that between life and death–it turns out that Garion even has the ability to transgress that, as when he brings a colt back to life. The moment when he does so is arguably the most moving part of the book, and a reminder that new life can flourish even in the darkest of times.
The incident in the land of Maragor is a grim reminder of the darker tones that underlie the seemingly light-hearted fantasy narrative. As Eddings himself noted several times during his life, his training was in American literature, and thus he set out to write a sort of fantasy that captured the grittiness of the work of men such as Steinbeck and Hemingway. While I don’t think he always succeeds in this regard–for one thing, his characters are far too likable–it has to be said that there tends to be one moment in each novel in the series where he attains this goal. In this case, we’re shown a land that has been utterly depopulated, its population slain in a genocide undertaken by the Tolnedrans in their efforts to procure the gold that was to be found there. All that remains is the desolate god Mara, who mourns the passing of his people.
The sequences in the land of the Ulgos are also fascinating. Not only does their god UL, bear the strongest resemblance to the Christian/Hebrew God of any that the reader has yet met, he also inspires a similar sort of fanaticism in his followers. Exemplary in this regard is the man Relg, who seems determined to project all of his own religious prejudices (including those involving female sexuality) onto others. It’s a pretty pointed criticism of religious fundamentalism, and one can’t help but see this part of the novel responding to the growth of the Religious Right throughout the 1980s.
Now, it has to be said that there is a sinister racial logic at work in the world that Eddings has created. The main characters have an almost pathological disregard for the value of Murgo life in particular, and an especially scathing attitude toward Angarak culture more generally. Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this regard, and I hate to keep bringing it up, but it seems especially glaring because of how often the company ends up slaughtering any Murgos that happen to get in their way. Had there been any indication that the Murgos, the Grolims in particular, had any sort of depth or motivation for their actions other than a sort of generic villainy this problem wouldn’t be quite so glaring. As it is, I kept wanting to get some indication that the Murgos and Grolims are motivated by a genuine belief in the power of Torak, and that it is his corrupting power that has led them to be the way they are. So far, alas, that is sorely lacking.
All of that being said, I will say that I found the portions where they make their way through the temple to Torak some of the most disturbing and yet compelling parts of the novel. How not, when they see the horrors of human sacrifice being committed time and again? Eddings has many skills as a storyteller, and one of this is his ability to capture a sense of place. We as readers feel as if we are right there with the characters, wandering through the caves below Cthol Murgos, witnessing the blood and fire that is such a key part of worship for the Murgos, and eventually fleeing for their lives as the mountain crashes down into ruin. It’s the perfect way to end this third volume of the saga, and it leaves the reader panting for more.
Narratively, what’s so refreshing about this series is that it doesn’t waste time with unnecessary fluff. This is epic pared down to its basic elements, and while some might want to see more of the political machinations that have become a signature part of much epic fantasy in recent decades, sometimes it’s a little nice to see an author really go back to basics in terms of storytelling. There’s a unique pleasure to be found in a simple story told well, and that is definitely the niche that Eddings occupies. It also helps that the characters are all very charming (though, admittedly, the witticisms do become a bit tedious after a while, but that’s a relatively minor complaint).
All in all, I very much enjoyed Magician’s Gambit. It’s a reminder of the types of fantasy that were popular in the past, and for that it should be treasured. I’m not making my quick way through Castle of Wizardry, so stay tuned!