Having finished The Belgariad, I decided to jump run into the sequel series, The Mallorean, beginning of course with Guardians of the West. There’s a lot to love about this novel. It manages to recapture some of the breathless action of the several books in The Belgariad, while also striking on its own. The plot here is a bit more expanded than it was in the first book, as Garion and company have to cope with the fact that his defeat of Torak was not, in fact, the final battle that they all assumed it would be. As it turns out, the tangled web of prophecy hasn’t quite finished with Garion, his family, and his friends. In fact, it draws them even more into its clutches, particularly when Garion’s son is kidnapped by the new Child of Dark, a mysterious figure known only as Zandramas.
To my mind, the most interesting parts of the book are those told from Errand’s POV. Though he played a significant role in the action of the preceding series, he was always something of a side character, one who was intriguing, to be sure, but without a lot of depth. Now, we learn a bit more about him and what makes him tick. It’s fairly clear that he’s not just a little boy with blonde curls but is, instead, an instrument of prophecy, with all sorts of powers that are gradually revealed as the novel goes on.
That’s not to say that the other characters aren’t as charming as ever, because they are. Garion is still a delightful protagonist to spend time with (and in fact far less irritating than many other heroes of epic fantasy from this period). He’s actually matured into quite a good Rivan King, and he seems to genuinely care about his family, his wife, and his people. He might stumble a few times, and there are moments when he almost gives in to a certain violent impulse, but for the most part he’s still the same lovable hero that we met in the previous books.
However, having just finished reading The Belgariad, I can definitely see the ways in which Eddings’ writing really didn’t mature a great deal between these two projects. Anyone who has read the earlier novels knows how much Eddings likes to lean into the “clever patter” of dialogue, and while it was tolerable enough in those books, by the time that Guardians of the West ends it has become more than a little cloying. You can only read so many wry remarks from Silk before you, along with the characters, want to throw him over the nearest parapet. (It’s worth pointing out that this problem isn’t exclusive to Eddings. Many, if not most, fantasy authors, find themselves leaning on stock phrases and situations as their work goes on. The unfortunate thing is that the greater a success an author is, the less control their editors seem to have over them).
Some have taken this novel to task for continuing to buttress the traditional fantasy binary between the west and the east, in which the former is the force of goodness and the latter of evil. Despite its title, however, the distinction between east and west isn’t nearly quite as stark as it was in The Belgariad, and there is even some indication that the peoples of the north and west aren’t quite as noble and good as they might like to think they are. To take but one example, the people of both Drasnia and Cherek fall prey to a rabble-rousing Grolim pretending to be a leader of the Bear Cult. While of course it’s an easterner who’s at the root of the problem, the fact remains that the northerners have a choice in what they do, and they decidedly make the wrong one.
As a result of this storyline, The Mallorean goes further than its predecessor did in its firm condemnation of religious fanaticism. The Bear Cult was, of course, a part of the action in The Belgariad, but for the most part its machinations were part of the background, now they have firmly involved the doings of the great and powerful. In fact, it is their genocidal desire to crush the other southern and eastern kingdoms that leads them to fall so easily into the machinations of the Grolim. It’s hard not to see Eddings responding to the sort of religious fundamentalism that was such a key part of the 1980s, when the Religious Right was in its heyday. His criticism might not be sophisticated, but it is surprisingly on-point.
Some have suggested that conceit of this novel is a lazy one. How else to explain the fact that the seemingly cataclysmic confrontation between Garion and the God Torak wasn’t as final as we’d been to believe? In fact, much of the action of this novel seems to directly follow that of its predecessor, right down to the theft of a sacred object that starts the true epic quest plot in motion. One could be forgiven for thinking that this entire effort was simply a cynical cash-grab by Eddings, an effort to make the most out of his established fantasy success. History, it seems, repeats itself ad nauseum.
I’d suggest, however, that that is precisely the point that Eddings, as well as a number of fantasy authors, is making here. Humans seem particularly fond of the idea that there will be some titanic clash between opposing forces that, once it is over, will leave the cosmos entirely remade. The reality, as Eddings illustrates, is far less certain. In fact, time and again we seem to find ourselves fighting the same battles, ensnared in the same conflicts over and over until it seems we are all collectively going mad. Evil, as both fantasy always points out, is never fully defeated.
It’s also worth pointing out that this novel does start to gesture toward the wider world that Eddings has created, with references to all sorts of beings, entities, and organizations that have yet to be fully explored. I can’t wait to continue my reading of The Mallorean and to share my thoughts with all of you!