Blog

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!

Fantasy Classics: “Pawn of Prophecy” (by David Eddings)

Sometimes, you just want to read a book that hits all the right notes of its chosen genre, that doesn’t really try to be something it’s not. So, when I decided that I wanted to read an epic fantasy in a style that isn’t quite as popular that it once was, I dug out my omnibus copies of The Belgariad and The Mallorean and decided to give them a re-read.

I’m glad I did. From the moment that I started reading Pawn of Prophecy, the first installment of The Belgariad, still retains much of the charm that drew me to it when I was an adolescent in the late ’90s, always looking for my next fantasy adventure to lose myself in.

The novel follows a young boy named Garion, who’s been raised on a farm in the practical kingdom of Sendar. Very soon, it becomes clear that he is part of something much vaster than he originally thought, and that his “Aunt Pol” is in fact the powerful sorceress Polgara, while the vagabond that he’s known since he was a child is Belgarath, Polgara’s father and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. They soon set out on a quest to recover the Orb of Aldur from a man who has stolen it, picking up several companions along the way.

It’s clear from the outset that this is going to be an epic adventure story in much the same mold as those that preceded it (most notably, perhaps, both The Lord of the Rings and the Shannara books by Terry Brooks). The book doesn’t take many risks when it comes to plot, and the reader is well aware from the first page where all of this will end up, particularly since the book begins with a young boy struggling to find his place in the world. The characters that appear are the archetypes that one expects from epic fantasy: the orphan hero, the wise old man, the rascal, the warrior, etc. And the plot is somewhat episodic, as they make their way through the lands of this world, foiling several plots along the way.

Don’t get me wrong. Though Eddings’ plot might follow the traditional beats of an epic fantasy, there are some moments of unique beauty here. The bond between Polgara and Garion, in particular, is one of the most affecting parts of the entire novel. The idea of the orphan as the epic hero is one that seems baked into the genre, but Eddings’ skill as an author allows us to see the negative impact that this status has on Garion’s sense of self, particularly after he comes to realize that Aunt Pol isn’t really his direct aunt (though, as it turns out, she is his many-times-great-aunt, just as Belgarath is his many-times-great-grandfather). Given that she has been one of the most constant aspects of his life, it’s very disconcerting for him to find that she isn’t who he thought she was. The moments when Polgara embraces him and Garion responds to her kindness are incredibly heartwarming, and they are a reminder that the family is as important to the genre of the epic as the more adventurous aspects.

Eddings’ skill as a storyteller is that he manages to keep his book light and breezy, even as he explores some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the epic form. There is a lot of violence in Eddings’ world. Even when the characters are joking with one another, it’s clear that theirs is a very unstable world, one in which politics can lead to bloodshed in the blink of an eye. There are some elements of grimdark here, to be sure, but Eddings prefers to keep things from getting out of hand.

Now, it has to be said that Eddings’ work is problematic in at least two regards. First, there is the question of gender. Unsurprisingly, most of the main characters are male, with the important exception of Polgara. However, while some have said that her inclination to perform domestic tasks takes away from her power, I’ve always thought that she was one of the best characters in the book. Though she might look like someone who’s content to simply do her work in the kitchen, she makes it pretty consistently clear that she’s as formidable as her father Belgarath, and that her choice to work in the kitchen is just that, a choice. (It’s also worth noting that, several years after this book was published, she would get her own volume exclusively about her life and told from her perspective).

The more glaring problem is Eddings’ tendency to associate “west” with “good” and east with “bad.” Of course, Eddings isn’t alone in this tendency, since it crops up literally everywhere, including in The Lord of the Rings itself. More importantly, he has a tendency to associate the races of his fictional world with certain (seemingly immutable) characteristics. Thus, those peoples that inhabit the west and north tend to be associated with goodness and justice (even if they are sometimes a little dense) and those from the east and south with sinister purposes, guile, and often just plain evil. Again, this isn’t exclusive to Eddings, but it’s one of those aspects of epic fantasy that has definitely come under significant (and well-deserved) scrutiny and criticism in recent years, and it’s one of the things that really dates this particular effort.

That being said, there is quite a lot to enjoy in Pawn of Prophecy. While the genre of epic fantasy seems to have moved on from some of its most basic conventions, for better and worse, there’s still something to be gleaned from these earlier examples of the form. I’m already making my way through the second volume of the series (like I said, it’s a quick read), and I’m still amazed at how powerful this story remains.

I can’t wait to share my thoughts on the books of this series, as well as Eddings’ other work, with all of you!

Book Review: “Dune: House Atreides” (by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson)

I’m about to make a very controversial statement. I actually like the series of books that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson have written, building on the legacy left by Frank Herbert. Anyone who’s spent any time in the world of the Dune fandom knows that those who loved the original books are, for the most part, quite hostile to the efforts of the younger Brian. I’ve seen them described as potboilers, as exploitative cash grabs, as bastardizations of the elder Herbert’s grand philosophical vision that he set out in his original six volumes.

However, all of this is somewhat beside the point. Herbert and Anderson, like another scion of a great literary figure (Christopher Tolkien) have done a great deal to flesh out the world left behind by Frank Herbert. You can love it or hate it, but I personally like returning to this world, seeing the backstories of some of the most fascinating characters in science fiction literature.

The result in this instance is Dune: House Atreides, the first in a trilogy of novels that chronicles events several decades prior to the original novel. At the time in which the novel begins, Shaddam is not yet Padishah Emperor, though he schemes with his loyal friend Fenring to achieve the throne, as well as to support the Tleilaxu in their efforts to create a synthetic melange. Leto is at this point a young man, not yet Duke (though he later becomes so after his father is killed in a bullfight, with the connivance of his mother), while his wife Jessica is only born toward the end of the narrative.

The characters that appear in this novel are some of the most iconic in the entire Dune universe. It’s quite exciting to see Leto in his youth, as he struggles to live up to the expectations set by his father, the Old Duke Paulus. Leto is an eminently likable character, and it’s easy to feel for him as he finds himself caught up in the great happenings of his era, particularly after the Tleilaxu manage to conquer the planet of Ix, sending the ruling Vernius family into exile. He’s both sympathetic and deeply honourable, and even at this early stage we can still see the roots of the man that he will become in Dune. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to tell the great powers of the Imperium how corrupt they are, even if that means that he is rendered vulnerable to the malevolent scheming of his enemies.

Of course, no story set in the Dune universe would be complete without the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. As truly awful as he was in the original novels, he’s even worse here, as he schemes against House Atreides and, in one of the novel’s more horrific scenes, actually rapes the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam (unaware that he will father the Lady Jessica). Of course, the cause of the millennia-long enmity between Harkonnen and Atreides is still left largely unexplained, it certainly provides the Baron with a great deal of his motivation for his continuing schemes to bring about the fall of the Atreides (including, it’s strongly hinted, working directly with the Lady Helena, Leto’s mother).

And, of course, there are the Bene Gesserit, the sisterhood that works to bring about the culmination of their breeding program within a few generations of the time in which this story is set. It was actually rather fascinating to see Gaius Helen Mohiam, the Reverend Mother that will play such a large role, particularly since she is such an enigma in both Dune and Dune Messiah. As it turns out, she is the one responsible for the Baron’s later obesity, since she infects him with a disease after he rapes her. Though this is a bit of retconning (for which the authors have taken no small amount of flack), it works well, especially since it’s also revealed that she is the mother of the woman who will later become Lady Jessica, mother of Paul Atreides.

Narratively, the novel is densely packed with action, but it doesn’t feel that way while you’re reading it. Instead, it’s a very quick read, in part because the chapters are for the most part very short. Nevertheless, there is a lovely complexity at work here, with each action taken by the characters radiating outward into the broader universe. One can see how the events of this novel will have a direct impact on the events that take place in Dune, particularly since Leto and Shaddam are shown as having a deeply confrontational relationship even at this early stage.

By the end of the novel, Leto is at least somewhat stable in his position as the new Duke, Baron Harkonnen, having been thwarted in his efforts to sow chaos and bloodshed in the Imperium, yearns for revenge. Shaddam sits on the throne now that his father is dead, though he has banished Fenring to Arrakis and it remains unclear whether the scheme to produce a synthetic version of the spice will actually come to fruition. Each of these characters is painted with such depth and subtlety that it’s easy to find yourself caring about what happens to them, even if they are morally reprehensible (which is the case with both the Baron and Shaddam). Herbert and Anderson deserve a lot of credit for crafting both an exciting narrative and compelling characters.

All in all, I quite liked this novel. While it may lack some of the philosophical sophistication of the original books, that’s okay with me. Instead, what it offers is an exploration of the roots of the characters that we already know and love. And, as a science fiction political thriller, it’s actually quite a good effort. The true brilliance of the novel, however, is the fact that it still manages to be suspenseful, even though the reader knows how most of the actions will resolve themselves and which characters will end up surviving until at least the events of Dune.

I’m hard at work reading Dune: House Harkonnen, so stay tuned!

Science Fiction Classics: “Heretics of Dune” (by Frank Herbert)

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been slowly making my way through the various books of the Dune saga. I’ve now finished the fifth book in the original series, Heretics of Dune. This is one of the entries in the saga that has a rather mixed reception among fans, and I can see why. It’s not quite as focused as some of the other entries in the series and, given that it’s the first not to include one of the original Atreides (or at least a close descendant), it takes some getting used to.

That being said, I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune more than a lot of people, but I still thought it was a rather strange book, particularly in comparison to the ones that preceded it. I mean, it’s difficult to really get into a book in which a man has allowed himself to become a strange hybrid of human and sandworm, even if he does happen to be the most powerful man in the known universe. Heretics is, in my opinion, is much more accessible by comparison. At the time that the novel begins, 1500 years have passed since Leto II was assassinated (at his own orchestration). Though in the subsequent years many humans dispersed in a phenomenon as the Scattering, they have now started to return, led by their sexually fanatical Honored Matres.

The novel largely follows three clusters of characters. One is the newest ghola of Duncan Idaho, who is being trained by the Bene Gesserit, including Lucilla, and protected by the Bashar Teg. Another group is comprised of a young woman named Sheeana, who is blessed with the ability to command the sandworms, as well as the Reverend Mother Odrade and the Tleilaxu Master Waff. The third is Mother Superior Taraza, who encounters and guides many of the other characters.

As the novel progresses, we see the ways in which the old Imperium has been shattered and rearranged in a new power-sharing arrangement, with the Bene Gesserit, Tleilaxu, the Spacing Guild, and the Ixians sharing power. The issue is further complicated by the return of those who were dispersed, particularly the Honored Matres, who are very like the Bene Gesserit but have mastered the ability to sexually dominate men. For this reason, the Bene Gesserit (and the Tleilaxu) refer to them as “whores,” and it’s precisely this very problematic gender politics that makes parts of the novel frustrating to read. The Dune Chronicles have always had a rather vexed relationship with women, and that reaches new depths in this book.

That being said, it was actually rather refreshing to get an inside look at the Bene Gesserit in a way unmatched by any of the other books in the series. At this point, they are sole inheritors of the Golden Path of Leto II, though this gradually reveals itself to be more of a burden than a blessing. However, that’s precisely the point that the novel is making, as it explores the consequences of Leto’s actions. However, it’s only when the novel is concluded that we finally see structure in its entirety.

To my mind, one of the most enjoyable, if strange, aspects of the novel was its exploration of the inner workings of the elusive and secretive society known as the Tleilaxu or Bene Tleilax. Now, we learn that they believe their adherence to the faith to be the only true one in the universe. More sinisterly, we also learn the truth about their celebrated axlotl tanks, which are (as perceptive readers will have already guessed) women who have been turned into giant biological factories. It’s one of the series’ most horrifying revelations.

As one would expect, the characters are rich and developed, and many of them have competing loyalties. Duncan Idaho is, of course, the centerpiece of the novel, and you can’t help but feel sorry for this man who has already been resurrected so many times. Now, he appears to bear the memories of all of the other gholas that have existed, in addition to his memories from the very first Dune novel. Personally, however, I most enjoyed those chapters from the perspective of Teg and Taraza, the Bashar and the Mother Superior. Both of them seem like they could have been characters from the original novel, and they are refreshingly normal after the weirdness of the characters in God Emperor.

If I have one complaint about this book, it’s that so much of what transpired between God Emperor and Heretics is left in the background, and there isn’t an info dump that would catch readers up to speed. Time jumps are always a difficult writing feat to pull off well, and while Herbert did many things well, that wasn’t one of them. The novel itself is easy to follow and read, and the plot is relatively simple, but that lack of crucial background leaves the reader struggling to figure out exactly what has happened. In my opinion, this is one of those times when I wish that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson had continued their plan to write some interquels that would flesh out the events between the original series of novels.

Nevertheless, Heretics is a fascinating exploration of the power of physical desire to change the course of human events on a truly cosmic scale. For, ultimately, it is the conflict between the Bene Gesserit, with their ruthless logic, and the Matres, with their sexual intensity, that sets the stage for the conflict to come in Chapterhouse. We are also a long way from the events that took place back in Dune, and the universe has changed in remarkable ways. However, there are still elements of the old families, particularly the Atreides, swirling about, and the novel suggests that genetic lines can hold true across numerous generations, for both better and worse.

Now that I’ve finished Heretics, it’s on to Chapterhouse. I’ve found myself very caught up in the elaborate and detailed universe that Frank Herbert has created, and so I look forward to seeing both how the next volume shapes up and, just as importantly, how the final two volumes in the series (by Brian and Kevin) finish things off.

Stay tuned!

Science Fiction Classics: God Emperor of Dune (by Frank Herbert)

Now at last we come to one of the most divisive entries in the Dune Chronicles. It’s not hard to see why. After all, this is a novel that has as one of its main characters a man who managed to make himself a hybrid of human and sandworm. To be honest, when I long ago read the cover of this novel, I thought it sounded ridiculous, a far cry from how things had started out in Dune. Now that I’ve finally finished the first three volumes, the fourth does make more sense than I thought it would.

To be fair, the novel is weird, particularly in comparison to the other entries in the series. By this point, 3500 years have passed since Leto first began his transition into a human/sandworm hybrid. He now rules as the supreme authority in all of the universe, known as the God Emperor. Utterly convinced that his is the only path by which humanity can avoid catastrophe, he represses dissent in his domain. However, he has begun to lay the groundwork for his own downfall, which will come about at the hands of Siona and another ghola version of Duncan Idaho. At the same time, Leto has also begun to find himself falling in a strange sort of love with the Ixian Hwee Noree.

Despite the novel’s absolute strangeness, I found myself absolutely captivated by it. In part that’s because the character of Leto himself is so bizarre and yet so utterly compelling. This is a creature that has given up almost all semblance of his humanity in order to bring about what he sees as the salvation of humanity, and there is in his story (as there was in his father’s) a profound tragedy. This is particularly acute for the reader that remembers Leto as the child that he was in the previous novel (though of course he was never really a child, since he has had full consciousness from birth). The fact that Leto feels himself so drawn to Hwee, even though he also knows that he stands at the brink of his own death, heightens the sense of tragedy.

It’s sometimes been said of this book that it indulges too much in Leto’s own delusions about his godlike status. However, to me that rather misses the point. The novel makes no bones about the fact that this creature is, indeed, a tyrant, and it betrays a certain ambivalence as to whether his actions–which he claims were taken in order to prevent humanity from destroying itself–are really just a cover for his own desire to rule over everything in his power. To a large extent, it seems that the final determination on that particular question must lie with the reader though, for my part, I think that Leto’s strenuous command of the entire narrative–almost every chapter has an excerpt from one of his journals–definitely skews it in his favor.

Though Leto occupies a substantial portion of the narrative, the other major players are Duncan Idaho and the rebel Siona. I’ve always found it particularly haunting that Idaho, who served the Atreides so faithfully, should be endlessly replicated through the centuries. Of course, Idaho gholas have played a significant role in each of the previous two novels, but this one is different, somehow. As the last being other than Leto himself that has a memory of what things were like before, he is something of a conscience figure, for both us as readers and for Leto himself. More than any of the other iterations of the character, he is a reminder of the old system of morality and order that existed before the rise of the God Emperor and the decline of the old Imperium. It’s small wonder, then, that it is he who joins with Siona in order to bring about the end of his rule.

Whereas Duncan is the past, Siona is the future. The product of numerous generations of Leto’s select breeding of the Atreides breeding, she has been chosen by Leto bring about his end. Like so many other members of her family, she finds herself caught up in forces that she cannot control, responsible for moving history forward. In bringing about the end of Leto’s reign, she sets in motion something that will radically reshape Dune (yet again), whatever her own wishes might be in the matter. Though parts of the novel are from her perspective, she still remains something of an enigma, though it’s always nice to see a woman do something in a science fiction novel rather than just serving as window dressing.

As much as I enjoyed God Emperor of Dune, however, I also found myself wanting to understand more about the events that transpired in the three and a half millennia since the last installment of the series. In particular, I found myself wanting to know the eventual fates of the many characters that we met in the last installment, people like the Lady Jessica (always one of my personal faves), as well as the tragic Princess Irulan, and of course Leto’s own sister Ghanima. Of course, I know that sometimes less is more when it comes to these sorts of stories, but I’m also the sort of person who wants to know each and every detail about characters, particularly ones that I’ve spent so much time with. What’s more, I wanted to know more about how the Fremen have become the degraded beings they are by the time of the events of this novel, reduced to merely aping the practices of their ancestors.

For all of that, this novel is a bold and risky one. It’s the rare author who would attempt a time jump of such magnitude between book and the next, and it’s a testament to Herbert’s skill as a storyteller that we as readers are brought so immediately into this world that he has created. I’ve already begun reading Heretics of Dune, which takes place a millennium and a half after the fall of Leto. I can’t wait to share all of my thoughts with you!