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Fantasy Challenge 1: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

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My first choice of genre might well be science fiction, but I’ve also read a lot of fantasy. But not The Belgariad by David Eddings, for some reason. Perhaps it felt like too much of a cash-in on the popularity of the genre – back in the 1980s – so I gave it a miss. I don’t know. But I’ve now read the first book of the series. And…

I don’t think I missed anything.

Pawn of Prophecy is the first of five books known collectively as The Belgariad. It was first published in 1982, and is still in print now. But as a YA fantasy.

Garion is a fourteen-year-old orphan, who lives on a farmstead in central Sendaria. His guardian, Aunt Pol, is the cook. One day, a nameless storyteller – subsequently named Mister Wolf by Garion – makes one of his infrequent visits to the farmstead. Apparently, something very important has been stolen from somewhere, and Mister Wolf needs to discuss this with Aunt Pol. Which he does. The two decide to hunt down the thief and retrieve the stolen item. Afraid to leave Garion on his own at the farmstead – he is clearly more than just a simple orphan – they take him with them. Also accompanying them is the farm’s blacksmith, Durnik, who fancies Aunt Pol. They are then joined by Barak, a huge Viking-like warrior, and Silk, a weaselly merchant/spy.

The intrepid band head to Darine, a city on the north coast of Sendaria, but miss their quarry. So they head south to a trading city, then across to a major port, before being accosted by a platoon of royal guards and escorted north again – but this time to the Sendarian capital. Where they meet the king, and Mister Wolf, Aunt Pol, Barak and Silk are revealed as rather more important personages than they purported to be. And they’re needed yet further north at Val Alorn, the capital of Cherek, for a meeting of kings.

At Val Alorn, Garion kills a boar in a hunt, unmasks a spy, learns more about Mister Wolf and Aunt Pol, and learns a little more about who he is.

There is, plainly, nothing new here. There wasn’t back in 1982. The Belgariad is the very definition of a secondary world fantasy. Pawn of Prophecy even opens with a creation myth as a prologue – and which so clearly sets the plot of the series that the real natures of the central cast can only have come as a surprise to a complete nincompoop. In fact, there is very much a sense about Pawn of Prophecy of it being a manufactured book, as if it were written to a checklist. Perhaps this is because it’s so clichéd.

Each of the nations on the continent – there is, of course, the obligatory map at the front of the book – has a single characteristic. Sendaria is populated by practical peasants (and where better to hide your Peasant Hero?), Cherek is Viking-like berserkers, Drasnia is spies and shifty merchants, Algaria is Mongol-like nomads, Tolnedra is an empire… It’s world-building by numbers – there’s no real sense of place or culture to each city or nation, only of plugged-together borrowings.

The same is true of the characters. Garion is both the Peasant Hero and the Hidden King. Mister Wolf is the Good Magician. Barak is the Mighty Warrior. Durnik is the Loyal But Slightly Dim Peasant. All are straight from Central Casting. And Eddings makes little effort to further distinguish them from their archetypes. For example, Barak likes beer. A lot. Oh yes – his relations with his wife are somewhat strained. I suppose that “quirk” makes him a little bit different. Except, Silk – who is a typical thief/scout – is in love with his “aunt”, the king’s second wife (the king is his uncle, but she is no blood relation). So the cast are actually as much characterised by their relationships as they are their archetypes.

There’s a bizarre clumsiness to the naming of people and places in the book too. Sendaria is fine… but Ulgoland? Tolnedra? Angarak? Mimbrate knight? Some of the place-names read like accidents on a Scrabble board. They make the place feel even more invented. There doesn’t appear to have been any effort made to make names sound like they fit a particular culture.

The prose reads as though it were dictated. It has that sort of verbal rhythm, and a reliance on set phrases to characterise members of the cast. I lost count of the number of times I saw the sentence “Barak laughed”. Descriptive prose is thin at best. When, for example, Aunt Pol takes on the role of Duchess of Erat when the party reaches Muros, she is described as “wearing a blue dress” and “magnificent”. There are a number of action sequences, and in these the sparse prose works quite well. But the story itself seems to be mostly carried in the dialogue. The characters trek for leagues to some city, then have a discussion. They trek somewhere else and have another discussion. Then there’s an action set-piece. Afterward, they have a discussion.

So, not an impressive work. And I suspect I would have found it just as dissatisfying if I’d read it back in 1982 (when I was in my late teens). I can certainly understand why the Belgariad has been re-categorised as YA. A bratty fourteen-year-old, especially an ignorant one, is a protagonist only teenagers could like. I’d have preferred if he’d been killed early on – although, of course, that was unlikely, given that the series is about him…

I am reliably informed that Pawn of Prophecy is the weakest of the five novels. Certainly on the strength of it I have no desire to read the remaining books. I’ve read the series précis on Wikipedia (here), and neither does that encourage me to read further.

So, the first book in this year’s reading challenge, Pawn of Prophecy, fails to persuade me to try the next book. Let’s hope the next fantasy series I chose is more successful.

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11 thoughts on “Fantasy Challenge 1: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

  1. It surprises me not in the least that you failed to like this book.

    Funnilly enough, this was the book I read that got me into fantasy in the first place altough I was only 13 when I read it which probably helped. At the time I loved it and lapped up the entire series (plus the series that followed, “The Mallorean”).

    Now though, when I look back on it, I view it as the antithesis of everything I look for in fantasy. I know if I read it now I would find it utter crap. Which is why I gave the whole series away a few years ago. But, because of what it meant to me at the time, it will always hold a fond place in my heart.

    Good as an introduction to fantasy perhaps, particularly for young teenagers, but otherwise best avoided at all costs.

  2. >>Some of the place-names read like accidents on a Scrabble board.

    Indeed. The extent to which effort was not taken in writing this book really shone through in the names. On the other hand,. Patricia McKillip’s books have some really poorly thought out names, too. I just don’t get it. Having liberated themselves from the need to pick from the range of names rendered prosaic by belonging to real people, why don’t some fantasy writers take the effort think up better stuff? One doesn’t even have to do a Tolkien and create a whole language – just look at Dickens, who thought up the coolest surnames for so many of his characters.

    • Bizarrely, the world feels completely manufactured – but the names read as though no thought went into them. You can imagine the conversation:

      “Right, we need a country with all the knightly stuff – like in the Round Table, all that kind of stuff. Um, what shall we call it…” Looks around, spots the materials for the wall they’re going to re-plaster, which includes a bag of render. “Aha! Arendia! That’ll do.”

      “What next? Ah yes, an empire. For all the Machiavellian courtly intrigue and stuff. And we shall call it…” Another look around. Sees auction catalogue splayed open on table. On the page facing is a picture of Aden, lot 56. “Adenlot? No, that doesn’t work… Tolneda!”

  3. Sorry, but I just don’t understand the importance some people place on name picking for characters. I would much rather writers concentrate on getting the important things right rather than trivial things like that.

    • Given that secondary world fantasies are first and foremost about immersion… then a cast of characters called Bob, Sue and Pzxtklf are only going to throw you out of the story every time you come across them.

  4. I don’t believe that the impact created by the names you are making up for your characters is unimportant. Done well, it adds to the richness of the fabric of the story. Done poorly, it usually can be found in company with a similar disregard for artistry in other aspects.

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