Fantasy Classics: Belgarath the Sorcerer (by David and Leigh Eddings)

Now that I’ve finished both The Belgariad and The Mallorean, I figured it was time to finally finish both Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.

The novel is, for the most part, told in first person, that person being Belgarath, who begins his life as a young boy named Garath. As it goes on, we get Belgarath’s perspective on the many great and momentous events that were in the distant past of the main series. We learn of his discipleship to the God Aldur, the theft of the Orb by Torak and the subsequent cracking of the world. We learn of the retrieval of the Orb and the beginning of the Rivan Kings. Perhaps most importantly, we see the ways in which the old sorcerer plants the seeds of the events that will shape the destinies of the entire world, making sure that certain family lines prevail and that events proceed as they should. By the end, of course, we reach the point where Garion is born and Belgarath must rescue him from the evil Grolim who burns his parents to death in their own home.

We also encounter Belgarath’s many griefs. As a man who will, it seems, live forever, he has to deal with the fact that many of those that he lives will not. First he loses his wife when he goes on the mission to retrieve the Orb from Mallorea, and then he ultimately loses one of his twin daughters to an illness, his grief compounded by the fact that he is too late to say goodbye. Eddings has always had a gift for conveying the power of human emotion, and that is fully in evidence here, as we witness Belgarath’s slide into near-madness as he copes with these griefs.

The dramatic irony of Poledra’s death is quite potent. After all, we in the audience know that Poldera is alive and well and, thus, that all of Belgarath’s grief is misplaced. However, one can’t help but feel for him as he reels from both the death and his guilt over the fact that he wasn’t there for her when she needed him the most. For all he knows, she is well and truly gone, and so it’s no wonder that he drowns himself in alcohol even though that means, of course, that he also abandons his children to the care of his brethren in the Vale.

From the beginning, it’s pretty clear that Belgarath is going to be a pawn of prophecy, an instrument through which one of the great forces that governs the cosmos is going to see its will manifested. That’s an awfully heavy burden to bear, and one can’t help but admire Belgarath’s ability to do so without going completely mad (sometimes, we tend to forget that being immortal is as much as a burden as a blessing, if not more so). As the millennia go on, he comes to have a rather distant approach to his many descendants, an attitude in marked contrast to his daughter Polgara, who becomes intensely emotionally invested in their well-being (which is understandable, since she’s the one tasked with seeing that they reach adulthood without falling prey to mishap).

The best thing about the book, however, is that we’re invited to genuinely like Belgarath. He’s always been one of the best characters that Eddings created, and in this novel he really gets the chance to stretch his wings and become more fully-fleshed out. Reading this book, one can’t help but get the feeling that Belgarath, perhaps more than any of the other characters in the series, is a representative of Eddings himself, or at least the way that Eddings liked to imagine himself. Belgarath is wise, certainly, and probably one of the most powerful men to have ever inhabited this world, but he wears his learning and his power lightly. There are quite a few sly asides that suggest that the wily old man knows not to take himself too seriously (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I’m referring to Belgarath or Eddings).

Philosophically, I also enjoyed the ways in which Belgarath, and by extension the book as a whole, is aware of the fundamental nature of history. As someone who has literally lived for thousands of years, Belgarath has had quite the opportunity to view human foibles from a very long perspective. Thus, he has an understanding of human nature that most people who only live one lifetime never attain. More than that, as he himself notes, is the fact that there can be no absolute objective recounting of events. In fact, the passage where he makes that observation, right after the Battle of Vo Mimbre, is one of the most erudite in all of Eddings’ works, and it’s a potent reminder that he himself was a professor (and thus dedicated to the life of the mind).

Stylistically, I found this a vast improvement over some of the later volumes of The Mallorean. While Belgarath is prone to sly asides now and then–usually poking fun at Polgara–for the most part Eddings seems to have found a way to rein in some of his bad habits. He allows us to immerse ourselves in this story and to enjoy getting this new perspective on the people and places that become ever more important as the story goes on. I was particularly impressed with his compelling conversations with one of the many Salmissras, a young woman who has become queen despite the fact that she would much rather have led a life in obscurity. It’s a haunting reminder of the cruelty of the real world.

All in all, I very much enjoyed this book. While there obviously isn’t that much tension, since we already know how the story ends up, Eddings is a strong enough storyteller that he’s able to keep us invested in this character and his adventures. And besides, it’s just plain fun to see all of our favourites again.

Now, it’s onward to Polgara. Stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: “The Seeress of Kell (by David Eddings)

And so at last we come to the conclusion of David Eddings’ magnificent The Mallorean, in which the Child of Dark and the Child of Light finally come together and Cyradis, the Seeress of Kell, makes her fateful decision about which one will prevail. It probably goes without saying that she comes down firmly on the side of good, and Eriond becomes the new god of the Angaraks. The novel concludes with Polgara giving birth to twins, bringing history full circle.

I suppose no one could truly claim to be surprised by the fact that Eriond is the one who ends up ascending to godhood. That was clearly hinted at in the first pages of Guardians of the West, when we see the almost supernatural connection that he has with Horse. However, it’s very satisfying to see this beloved character finally become the new god that he clearly deserves to be, especially since the Angaraks haven’t had very good luck with their deities in the past. Eriond was always one of my favourite characters in these new books (even if he didn’t get as much POV time in the later novels), and his deification seems like a natural conclusion to everything that’s come before.

Likewise, I can’t say that I was surprised that the female wolf ended up being Poledra. Almost from the beginning of this series, it’s been obvious that Belgarath’s supposedly deceased wife has a larger role to play in the fate of the world than has been supposed, and it was also pretty obvious that she wasn’t really dead. I think that even the most credulous reader would have recognized before now that the mysterious wolf that joined the company in the previous book was a little too knowing to be a simple wild animal. What’s more, it reveals that, beneath his rather crusty and irreverent exterior, Belgarath really is a man of deep emotions. He clearly loved his wife dearly, and has spent an extraordinary amount of time trying to learn to forgive himself for leaving her behind when he set out to steal the Orb from Torak. Now, at last, they are reunited, and one of the outstanding threads from the previous series has been neatly tied up. And, of course, it goes without saying that Poledra is a delight as a character, given that her wolfish wisdom punctures the foibles of human vanity with the precision of a scalpel.

Likewise, this book finally gives Polgara the chance to build a family of her own. For all of her long life, she has always had to look over the heirs of Riva, awaiting the day when one of them would be the Child of Light. As a result, she has always had to subsume her own desires for a family of her own beneath her duty, and the ending allows her to have the future and the life that she wants, to live her life on her terms. I’m sure that some will see in this narrative resolution a desire to tame Polgara’s female energies, to make her into nothing more than a housewife, content to tend her hearth and home and family. It seems to me, however, that this is a fatal misreading of her character. She’s still the same powerful woman that she’s always been, and being domestic isn’t necessarily antithetical to being empowered (certainly not in the fantasy world that Eddings has created).

What I found especially intriguing about this series in particular was its greater cosmological complexity than its predecessor. We now know that the splitting of the universe was the result of an event that took place in the outer reaches of the cosmos. Putting aside the question of whether or not it checks out astronomically, it’s actually rather neat to see such a natural explanation for this tremendous cosmological event that has shaped the destinies of so many. The fact that Zandramas has now become a patch of sorts in the gap in that outer reach is a fitting ending for her character (though I do rather wish that we’d gotten a few more chapters from her perspective, since she remains a bit of an enigma right up until the end).

I have to admit that I was kind of relieved to be done with this series. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it quite a lot. However, I think that its greater length ended up being a detriment. It gave Eddings far too much time to indulge in his little tics, and those get very tedious indeed by the time of the novel’s conclusion. The teasing and banter wear very thin very quickly, and if I never have to read the strangled dialogue of the Mimbrates again it will be too soon.

Nevertheless, I will say that The Mallorean is a special kind of epic fantasy, of a sort that has largely passed out of fashion. There’s never a doubt that the series is going to end happily, and there’s a particular form of pleasure to this sort of narrative simplicity. As a reader, you don’t have to worry about just how many of the main characters are going to die, since you know that most, if not all, of them will ultimately live. (As it turns out, only one does, and while it’s sad to see Toth perish as a result of defending the others, we haven’t really been allowed to grow all that close to him). Of course, this means that there isn’t much dramatic tension in this story, but then that’s not really the point of The Mallorean. It’s a simple story rather simply told, and there’s something to be said for that. I sometimes wish that contemporary fantasy would remember that there’s still a space for these old-fashioned narratives.

All in all, I enjoyed both The Seeress of Kell and The Mallorean more generally. Eddings was without doubt one of the giants of modern fantasy, and this series shows why. It reminds us that there really is good in the world and that sometimes, sometimes, the good guys win after all.

Fantasy Classics: “Sorceress of Darshiva” (by David Eddings)

We’ve now come to the penultimate volume in The Mallorean, and things have begun to reach a crescendo. Garion and company have to increasingly confront the perils of prophecy as they grow closer to the moment foretold for eons, when Cyradis the Seer will have to make a dreadful choice between the Child of Dark and the Child of Light. In the process, they make a number of fascinating discoveries.

One of the novel’s most fascinating sequences occurs when Garion and Belgarath visit the University of Melcene, where they encounter a man who has learned the secrets of sorcery on his own. It’s a useful reminder that there are quite a few other people in this vast world that Eddings has created, and not all of them have a major part to play in the major events of the series. (In this case, the sorcerer does help them understand more of the Sardion, the gem that is the evil counterpart to the Orb of Aldur).

It would be very easy to paint both The Belgariad and The Mallorean as paint-by-numbers fantasy. As readers, we already know the beats that the story is going to hit going in, and we also know that certain characters who are going to fulfill certain functions. There are times in this book, however, where we realize that Torak, for one, isn’t nearly as one-dimensional as we might have assumed, particularly when the Garion and Belgarath read the prophecies that Torak himself was obliged to deliver. These sequences where we hear Torak’s voice, however, reveal that there is something more complex going on. As in all great fantasy, Torak isn’t just a malevolent force devoid of any complexity. In fact, he ultimately has no more agency in the unfolding of his destiny than Garion does. In some ways, in fact, his burden is even heavier, since he must largely carry it alone.

I also particularly appreciated this book’s efforts to portray Emperor ‘Zakath with more depth and complexity than did The Belgariad. One gets the sense that part of this series’ attempts to right some of the wrongs of its predecessor in terms of its rather simplistic portrayal of the Angaraks. He’s wry and amusing, and he clearly has had a great burden on his shoulders as the Emperor of Mallorea. Though he has had some of his emotions stripped out of him by various struggles and personal setbacks, he still emerges from the book as someone who really does do the best that he can for his people.

Though the storytelling in Sorceress of Darshiva is as streamlined as its predecessors, it does continue the practice of occasionally zooming out to give the reader a sense of what’s going on in the rest of the world. This is a neat little device, a way of reminding us that, though the quest of Belgarion and the rest is, of course, the most important thing going on in the world, there are other characters who are also playing a key part in the events that are about to shape the world. I liked the emphasis on Queen Porenn in particular, if for no other reason than that it’s nice to see some attention paid to one of the few female monarchs in the series.

Two other positive things are worth noting. First, we finally get to see Durnik attain the reward that he’s been moving toward (unconsciously) since the ending of The Belgariad. He is at last welcomed as one of the disciples of Aldur. It’s fitting that he be given this status, since he has worked as hard as any to make Garion into the person that he is. What’s more, he is a genuinely good man who genuinely loves Polgara and Garion. The other positive development is the inclusion of the character of the female wolf who inexplicably joins their company. Though her identity isn’t revealed until later, the canny reader will no doubt quickly guess who she is and what he role in the coming confrontation will ultimately be.

However, that being said, this book (like so many of the others in this series) tends to lean a bit too heavily on the witty banter and what Eddings seems to think are charming affectations. If you thought that just because Mandorallen wasn’t going to be part of the narrative that you were to be spared his archaic dialogue, you would be mistaken, because we still get it in the person of Cyradis. (I’m fairly sure that he was using this device to poke fun at Tolkien, but it ends up becoming very trite and, frankly, irritating). What’s more, Eddings is often a bit simplistic in his narrative devices. The mysteries aren’t really that mysterious when you get right down to it, and the solutions to the central enigmas (such as “The Place Which is No More”) are, in the final analysis, quite easy to figure out. No wonder so many of the characters seem perplexed that they hadn’t thought of it sooner. (Most canny readers will have figured out the secret pretty early on).

Overall, I quite liked this book. Eddings continues to demonstrate that he has a keen eye for what makes a story work. Narratively, the book has its own story to tell and its own bits of character development, even as it manages to connect with what came before and what follows in the next, and final, book in the series. Just as importantly, while you’re reading one of the books in this series you can’t help but feel swept up in the narrative. At the same time, he knows how to slow down long enough so that the reader really gets a sense of place, and I for one really enjoyed the fact that the company gets to travel around the eastern continent, exploring new peoples, places, and customs.

I’ve already finished The Seeress of Kell, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts with all of you. It’s going to be a blast!

Fantasy Classics: “Demon Lord of Karanda” (by David Eddings)

I’ve been a bit behind in updating y’all with my readings of David Eddings’ Mallorean, but rest assured I’m back at it. I’ve now finished Demon Lord of Karanda, the third volume in the series, in which Garion and company continue on their quest to track down Zandramas, the sorceress who has kidnapped Garion’s son and plans to use him in a ritual that will bring about the end of the good prophecy. Once again, Eddings spins an eminently captivating tale, one that sweeps the reader along in a breathless adventure for the salvation of all of the cosmos. The characters are the same ones that we’ve met before, though the challenges that they face are somewhat different than those they’ve encountered before, even as they continue to tread a path of prophecy eerily similar to that which they encountered in The Belgariad.

However, there are a few things that mar this novel, most notably the dialogue. As I’ve written in my other reviews for this particular series, Eddings has this annoying habit of thinking that his writing is more clever than it is. Most obviously, this manifests as the constant banter among the characters. It’s cute once in a while, but he leans so heavily on it in this novel that it really does break up the narrative flow. One can’t help but think that his editors fell down on the job a bit on this one, or perhaps Eddings was already so successful as an author that he could get away with this sort of lazy writing without someone taking him to task and demanding that he make the experience a little more pleasant for his readers. By the end of the novel, I’m sure that I’m not the only one who was wishing that something particularly awful would happen to either Silk or Liselle, just so they’d stop interrupting what was happening with their inane chatter.

Then there’s the juggler. Whew. It’s really hard to convey how absolutely infuriating his accent is. I’m pretty sure that Eddings thought it was cute and quaint, but the thing about dialect is that it requires a truly adept writer to write in such a way that it doesn’t make the reader want to either pull their hair out or throw the book across the room. Alas, that writer is not David Eddings. It ends up coming across as very cloying and irritating, to an extent that it’s very tempting to just skip the parts where he goes on and on (I definitely sympathize with Belgarath, who finds the brogue equally irritating).

Whatever his flaws and shortcomings as a writer, there’s no question that Eddings really does know how to craft a scene that sticks in the mind. There’s one in particular that stands out, and it involves the sorcerer Urvon and his madness. By this point, he’s quite thoroughly under the thrall of the titular Demon Lord, a creature named Nahaz. As Garion watches, they stage a religious ceremony in the ruins of the ancient city of Ashaba, once the haunt of Torak. It’s a haunting sort of image, as we realize that the various evil powers are jockeying for position, each of them seeking to be the one who will rise as the god of the Angaraks.

The scene that really struck me, however, was one that largely occurred off-stage. As they make their way toward Kell, the company come across a group who are preparing for a woman to give birth to a child that will be an unholy amalgam of demon and human. Polgara, being the woman that she is, intervenes and, while the reader doesn’t know exactly what happens, it’s very clear that whatever it is takes a tremendous toll on her. It’s a moment made horrifying by the fact that we as readers are given just enough of an image to know that this poor woman, deceived by the poisoned words of a demon, has given up her body (and, ultimately her life), for a broken promise. Eddings’ brilliance as a writer is that he only gives us enough of a glimpse of what’s happening to know that it’s truly terrible without indulging in the prurient.

By this point in the narrative, the stakes are growing ever higher, as it’s clear that the cloven destinies that have competed for so long will at last come to a final, fatal confrontation. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen here. Say what you will about Eddings, but the man isn’t a cynic (or, at least, his works aren’t cynical). It’s a pretty safe assumption that the story will end happily, with the evil side of destiny banished, the world returned to a balance that it hasn’t had for some time. The joy of the novels, however, is in experiencing how we get to that point, and it’s to Eddings’ credit as a storyteller that he periodically makes us doubt whether, in fact, good will win out in the end.

At the same time, I continue to be astounded at the philosophical richness of the series’ fundamental conflict. It’s really rather disturbing to contemplate the idea that the all of one’s actions are being directed by a prophecy, that individual free will is a figment, a convenient truth that people tell themselves in order to make the world make a little more sense. Since so much of the novel is told from Garion’s perspective, we as readers get to see the toll that it takes on his psyche. However, at the very least he has the consolation of his burgeoning friendship with the Mallorean emperor ‘Zakath, who continues to emerge as a fully-developed character in his own right. I just hope that he survives until the end of the story.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Demon Lord of Karanda. It does show some signs of being the middle volume in a five-book series, but it largely manages to overcome its flaws to be an entertaining yarn. My review of Sorceress of Darshiva is coming soon!

Fantasy Classics: “King of the Murgos” (by David Eddings)

King of the Murgos, the second book of David Eddings’ sries The Mallorean, picks up where the previous volume ended. Garion and company are now on the trail of the mysterious figure known as Zandramas. They make a few stops in some of the already-established locales–including Tolnedra and Nyissa–before meeting Urgit, the new King of the Murgos. By the end of the novel, they are now the “guests’ of ‘Zakath, the Emperor of Mallorea, who seems to have his own plans for what will become of them.

As I noted in my review of the various entries of The Belgariad, there are times when Eddings tends to lean too heavily on the idea of cultural determinism, i.e. that certain groups of people will be guaranteed to act in certain ways, largely as a result of what racial group they happen to belong to. While this book doesn’t entirely undo that tendency, there is an important moment when the company comes upon a Murgo homestead that has been slaughtered by the invading Malloreans. Garion in particular feels the pain of this moment, and it causes him to reflect on the fact that there is far more in common between himself and his supposed enemies than he had ever thought possible. It’s one of those moments at which Eddings excels, showing us as readers the very real consequences of war and conquest. It also suggests that, beneath all of the racial and cultural differences that sunder this fictional world, there are still some things that are universally human.

This incident also inspires Garion to commit a brutal act of vengeance when he slaughters a group of Malloreans in the forest, all while in a sort of trance. He doesn’t know for sure that they were the ones responsible for the slaughter, but he still feels justified in killing them because they would do the same thing as the other group. It’s a morally ambiguous moment, and it reveals that there is a dark side to Garion that isn’t always appear on the surface. You can’t help but feel that, if he isn’t careful, he might just become the thing that he most abhors. It’s another of those moments that reveals that, beneath the seemingly simplistic quest narrative there are some philosophical questions being raised.

This novel is also full of reunions of various sorts. For one thing, we get to again see Queen Salmissra, whom Polgara memorably transformed into a serpent as a punishment for her attempt to kidnap and enslave Belgarion to her whims. By the time of this novel, she has slipped further into her identity as a reptile, but she does still have enough of her old spite, and she seems to take an especial delight in informing Polgara of the fact that Zandramas is a woman. Even Polgara, who always seems one step ahead of almost everyone, seems taken aback by this revelation.

What I particularly enjoyed about King of the Murgos was that it gave us more insight into the culture of the Angaraks. In previous books they have been the antagonists, but now there are some new shadings to their characterization. The titular king, a man by the name of Urgit, for example, is a fascinating character. For one thing, as the novel reveals, he is not in fact the son of Taur Urgas at all; he is, rather the result of an affair that his father had with none other than Silk’s father several years previously. Through Garion’s influence, he gradually learns to shake off the traumas of his childhood in order to become a more effective king for his people. However, there are also a number of other interesting Angarak characters that appear, and it’s fascinating to see the ways in which their culture has had to contend with the fact their God, the dreadful Torak, is in fact dead, leaving them to pick up the pieces of their shattered faith.

Indeed, this novel, and the series as a whole, is far more preoccupied with questions of faith and fate than its predecessor. Gods here are not just impersonal forces that exist outside of the world, but are instead beings that have literally shaped the peoples over which they have ruled. While Torak might have been a brutal tyrant, he was also one of the only things giving shape and purpose to the lives of an entire people. Though the novel doesn’t quite right out and say so, there’s something almost tragic about the fact that the Angaraks are now left without a god to guide their footsteps, something that few of the other major peoples have had to contend with. It’s a haunting reminder that even the most laudable quests often have unintended consequences.

The other fascinating character is ‘Zakath. We briefly met him in The Belgariad, but here he’s a more fleshed-out character, a man haunted by his past and yet capable of acts of truly horrendous cruelty. It’s hard to say, exactly, whether we as readers are necessarily supposed to like him, but there’s no question that he’s compelling, if for no other reason than that he seems to be a relatively mild-mannered person to be the leader of one of the most powerful and far-flung nations in this fictional world.

Philosophically, King of the Murgos continues to explore the big issues alluded to in the previous book. Garion and the rest are still caught up in events that they can’t quite control, and he in particular feels the weight of responsibility. What’s more, he also frequently thinks about the fact that Torak, for all that he was evil, was similarly a plaything in the hands of a destiny far greater than either of them. Things are even more complicated because of the presence of the Seers, who seem to believe that they are the ones responsible for deciding the fate of all of creation. In particular the one known as Cyradis seems to think that she has the ability to remain absolutely impartial, though this remains to be seen.

All in all, I quite enjoyed King of the Murgos, and I can’t wait to share my thoughts on Demon Lord of Karanda. Stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: “Guardians of the West” (by David Eddings)

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!

Fantasy Classics: “Enchanter’s Endgame” (by David Eddings)

And so at last we come to the concluding volume of David Eddings’ Belgariad. It’s been a wild ride, and as I’ve gone through my re-reading of this series, I’ve been astonished again and again at how very quickly I’ve made my way through them. There’s just something compulsively readable about this series, something that hooks you right from the beginning and keeps you moving through.

In this novel, the final confrontation between Garion and Torak is set to take place. While he, Silk, and Belgarath make their way to Torak’s hiding place, those left behind must do all they can to keep the forces of the Angaraks at bay. Finally, of course, Garion and the Dark God confront one another and, inevitably, Torak is defeated. In the epilogue, Garion marries C’Nedra, while Polgara marries Durnik (who has been resurrected after being slain by Zedar the Apostate).

This book marks a narrative change from all of the earlier volumes. Every other book has been restricted to the point of view of either Garion or, some rarer instances, C’Nedra. Now, however, a very large portion of the book is given to the various other political actors in the brewing war, particularly the queens of the north, all of whom have to deal with the consequences of the titanic struggle going on here, and this focus on the concerns of women is particularly refreshing. Some rightfully ding this series for being so focused on the male characters, so it’s nice to see that Eddings does have the ability to craft compelling female narratives when the need arises. C’Nedra is, to be sure, a bit of a brat, but there is something uniquely endearing about her.

In these passages, one also sees a different shade of another character in Sadi, a certain eunuch who would come to play a very large role in the governing of Nyissa (since its queen has been turned into a snake). In doing so, he comes to resemble a certain Varys of A Song of Ice and Fire, another eunuch who really seems to have the well-being of his nation in mind. I’m not sure if the homage is deliberate but, given that Martin was very much aware of the fantasy books that preceded him, so it seems rather likely.

Of course, Polgara also has her own part to play, and her emotional conversation with C’Nedra is one of the strongest parts of the book. In all of the other entries in the series, she’s been the rock upon which the other characters have based their lives, as foundational to the success of this adventure as her father Belgarath. Here, however, she reveals that she, too, has her own sensitive side, her own fears. In her case, they center upon the power of Torak to possibly bend her to his will. As it turns out, it’s the power of her love for Durnik that proves to be the turning point, the thing that turns her away from him forever. It’s a bit hackneyed, to be sure, but also touching in its way. And, as it turns out, they are truly equal, since after his resurrection Durnik is a sorcerer in his own right. It’s a fitting ending for the series’ most compelling character.

The ending for Torak is no less fitting. One of the strengths of this series is the way that it paints the Dark God in a somewhat sympathetic light. While one would be forgiven for expecting the death of Torak to be a cause for celebration, it’s actually a great deal more complicated than that. It’s true that he is a dark and terrible force, a God driven mad by his subservience to the darker powers of prophecy. At the same time, you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for him, especially since it’s very clear that he, like Garion, ultimately had no choice in whether he was going to be the bearer of such a grand destiny. True, he was delusional, and certainly he took a special sort of delight in inflicting pain on others. However, it is eventually shown that his life has been a tragedy since, by his end, he is cast out and, in his own mind, hated by all. As it turns out, he isn’t, and his last anguished cry of “Mother!,” the universe’s response to his death, and the mourning of his fellow gods (and their father, UL), shows that even the evil aren’t unmourned. Especially when they are as much a victim of fate as anyone.

Indeed, the entire Belgariad is five-book reflection on the power of free will, and whether in fact regular humans have any of it at all. It’s hard to say where exactly the books come down on the issue, but precisely that’s the point. Human beings do have a certain measure of autonomy, but it’s always circumscribed by other destinies, by forces that they usually can neither name nor describe nor apprehend in their totality. There is always something vaster than the individual. If that isn’t the very description of life under modernity (and postmodernity, for that matter), then I don’t know what is.

No review of this novel would be complete without mentioning how adeptly it captures the tragedy of war. While the main characters all survive, this conflict is not without its losses, including some characters that we have met in passing along the way. Arguably the most senseless–and thus the most wrenching–is the poor shepherd boy who had the unnatural ability to produce beautiful music. He’s slain by a random Mallorean, and his senseless death is a potent reminder that there are always losses that remind us that no victory is without cost.

I have to be honest. I’m rather sad that I’ve now finished The Belgariad. While I am, of course, looking forward to reading The Mallorean (which I must confess to have never having finished), there’s something endlessly endearing about the simplicity of the narrative, about the well-worn idea of an epic hero and his quest. It’s going to take me a while to finish Guardians of the West, since it’s a great deal longer than any of the books in The Belgariad, but rest assured I will. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!

Fantasy Classics: “Castle of Wizardry” (by David Eddings)

And so we come at last to Castle of Wizardry, the next-to-last volume in David Eddings’ magnificent epic The Belgariad. Fleeing from the ruins of the Murgo fortress, the company eventually comes to the island of Riva, where Garion claims both the Orb and the throne. In assuming the throne of Riva, Garion has now set the stage for the final, dreadful combat between himself and Torak, a clash that will quite literally determine the fate of the world.

As the penultimate novel in the series, Castle of Wizardry spends a great deal of time setting up the actions that are to come. However, it still has that sense of breathless pacing that makes The Belgariad as a whole such a pleasure to read. Somehow, Eddings manages to strike the right balance between keeping the story moving forward at good pace while also slowing down to immerse the reader in the world that he’s created. Once again, we have the evocative descriptions of scenery and natural beauty, as well as those tender domestic scenes at which he seems to excel (I found myself tearing up while reading the moment when Garion, overwrought with the burdens placed on his shoulders, puts his head on Polgara’s lap, as he did when he was a child).

The novel, for the first time, has an extended sequence told from C’Nedra’s point of view (while there were chapters that were this way in the earlier novels, the entire last section of Castle of Wizardry is all about her). Some will no doubt find C’Nedra a rather irritating character, and it’s true that she’s not one of the more compelling female creations (Polgara, however, continues to shine). However, looked at in the right light she can be a bit charming. She is, after all, a young woman who has spent her entire life being taught that everything revolves around her, and the quest has thrown all of that into confusion and doubt. More than that, though, she also has a key role to play in the unfolding of destiny. While it’s true that she is as much of a pawn of prophecy as Garion, she does take the initiative in some important ways, and this entire part of the book is a subtle (sometimes too subtle) poke at the conventions of fantasy that have consistently sidelined women. Her manipulation of the other kings of the West in fact relies upon their own prejudices regarding the intellectual faculties of women.

My personal favourite part of the novel, however, was the confrontation between Belgarath and the witch. She’s a woman who has been cast out from the world of men because of her powers, and as a result she has taken the creatures known as fenlings (who appear to be something akin to a beaver or a muskrat) under her wing, changing them so that they are somewhere between human and animal. In one of the book’s more haunting passages, she blackmails Belgarath into granting them the power of speech, so that they won’t be hunted after she dies. He does as she wishes, and the results seem to good but, as any good sorcerer knows, sometimes the consequences of one’s actions can’t be seen immediately.

That’s the thing about so many of Eddings’ works. While they are seemingly simple stories that are a fleshing out of the basic archetypes of epic fantasy (and of just plain epic), there’s so much else going on here. He genuinely seems to have an interest in the workings of the human heart, of the ways in which people–especially young people–contend with the weight of responsibility that is put on their shoulders. In that sense, this really is a coming-of-age novel, in which Garion (and, to a lesser extent, C’Nedra), have to leave behind the trappings of their childhood so that they can enter into the world of adulthood. When Garion takes a side trip with Polgara to Faldor’s farm and, with just a glance, says farewell to Zubrette, it’s a wrenching reminder of the prince that must be paid when one leaves such things behind.

At a larger level, of course, the novel is also a rumination on the power of free well, and whether or not humans have it. Of course, the idea of a young person (usually a man) having to fulfill a destiny is a staple of epic fantasy, it gains some much-needed complexity in the work of Eddings. Here, it’s not just that the hero is reluctant; it’s that he literally has no choice about the course that his life is going to take. His sole function, so far as he knows, is to fulfill the purposes of the prophecy, just as Torak is fated to fulfill the purposes of the other great destiny. All of human time, and indeed all of cosmological time, has led up to this pivotal moment. Garion’s burden is that he has to figure out how to carry the weight of time on his shoulders without breaking. Oh, and he also has to fight Torak to the death.

Some might decry this as lazy writing, but to me it’s a compelling question, and it’s one that both philosophers and writers have struggled with for centuries, though of course it has taken on a particularly added relevance in both modernity and postmodernity. One can see in the work of Eddings a reflection of the 1980s, when the concept of a strong America was resurgent, but in Eddings there seems to be some healthy skepticism toward the idea of a superman savior, though obviously even he can’t leave such things aside altogether.

I’m not sure that I’d say that Castle of Wizardry is my favourite entry in this series, since it’s not quite as compelling as the ones that preceded it, and it doesn’t have the sense of closure that looms ahead in the final volume (Enchanter’s Endgame). However, there is a lot to to enjoy, and I’m looking forward to finishing the final volume and then moving on to The Mallorean.

Stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: “Magician’s Gambit” (by David Eddings)

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!

Fantasy Classics: Queen of Sorcery (by David Eddings)

Queen of Sorcery picks up where Pawn of Prophecy left off. Garion is still in the company of the sorcerer Belgarath and his daughter Polgara, as well as sundry other characters, including several new additions, most notably C’Nendra, the daughter of the Emperor of Tolendra who joins them after she runs away from home. As the novel progresses, we visit more of the lands of Eddings’ fictional world and get a firmer view of the politics at play, including the never-ending conflict between the Mimbrates and the Arendians, as well as the machinations of the Nyissans, led by their snake-like Queen Salmissra.

As with its predecessor, there are the familiar epic beats as it becomes clearer that Garion is not just a young boy brought along to keep him safe but is, instead, pivotal to the workings of prophecy itself. What’s more, it’s revealed during the course of the story that he, like his aunt and his grandfather, has the power of sorcery. For better and for worse, it’s a burden that he has to bear. The fact that he is going to be responsible for the functioning of prophecy just makes his responsibilities all the greater, even as he wishes that it weren’t so and that he could go back to living the simple life on Faldor’s farm that he was forced to leave behind.

Some people make the claim that Garion is a bit of a brat in this series, but I think that’s a bit of a misreading. True, he does seem to struggle unnecessarily against the changes that start to overtake his life, but who wouldn’t, in his position? After all, in a relatively short period of time everything about his life, his family, and his destiny have all been turned upside down, so it’s only natural that he would experience moments when he doesn’t want to do as he’s told, particularly since neither Polgara nor Belgarath seem particularly eager to tell him any more than they think he needs to know. And besides, there’s just something charming about his character that makes him impossible to dislike.

It seems to me that Eddings doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his ability to imbue his narratives with powerful feeling. In one particular instance, the company rides through a land that, as Garion is informed, has been the site of numerous conflicts between the Mimbrates and the Asturians. It’s a haunting moment, as he realizes that the land over which they are walking is literally filled with the graves of those who have given their lives to a conflict that seems to have no resolution. In fact, the entire conflict between these two powerful groups (which are very similar to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans), is one that seems to have so thoroughly ensnared both groups of people that neither of them can see any way out of it.

This is also the novel in which Garion does the seemingly unthinkable and kills someone with his newly-found powers of sorcery. The fact that it happens to be the man who murdered his mother and father only partially cushions the blow that this has on him and on us as readers. It’s a scene described in almost painful detail, as Asharak the Murgo confronts them and threatens the life of everyone that Garion cares about. Unable to control his anger any longer, he unleashes fire and burns the man to a crisp, even as his victim begs him for mercy. This incident is the most important thing that happens to Garion in the entire book, and it is a reminder of the tremendous burden that his power entails, as well as the tricky nature of revenge. While he might have finally attained the vengeance that he sought for the murder of his parents, it leaves a scar on his psyche, one that will take quite a while for him to overcome.

It’s also an incident that reveals how ruthless Polgara herself can be. Ever since I first read this series when I was in high school, I’ve loved this character. In this book, she also gets one of her best speeches, when she reprimands Garion for his childlike behavior, pointing out that she has, in fact, suffered a great deal in order to make sure that he survived to fulfill his destiny. There are glimpses in this speech of the life that Polgara has led, of the many things that she has endured in her millennia-long life (many of which will be explored in her own novel, Polgara the Sorceress). It’s a reminder that there is much about this character that lies beneath the surface, and it’s precisely this texture that makes her so fascinating.

Queen of Sorcery also contains one of Eddings’ enigmatic creations, and she is, of course, the titular character. The novel clearly intends Salmissra to be seen as evil, and in many ways she is the id of the story, the dark woman of seemingly bottomless appetites that Garion must overcome in order for him to move into the next step of his maturity. This is, admittedly, a rather regressive way of looking at female sexuality, but it’s in keeping with fantasy conventions and pop psychology (upon which Eddings is surely drawing in the way that he constructs his character and his narrative). It’s also no accident that her inability to restrain her emotions and her desires are in marked contrast to Polgara who, as it happens, transforms her into a giant serpent as a punishment for her attempt to kidnap Garion and enslave him. However, for all that the novel wants us as readers to be more than a little horrified at this snake-woman, the fact is that she is a very compelling character. Like so many of the femmes fatales that have preceded her in literature, she exerts a powerful allure that the narrative (and, for that matter, Polgara herself) cannot quite control or contain.

I’m already making my way through the next book in the series, Magician’s Gambit, and I am looking forward to sharing all of my thoughts with you!