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: “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!