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Fantasy Challenge 1: Pawn of Prophecy, David Eddings

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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