I’ve been racking my brains recently to try and come up with a way to review one of my favourite fantasy series of all time. I refer, of course, to the late great David Eddings, and his Belgariad and Mallorean epic sagas. Unfortunately, it’s two separate if contiguous series, each one containing five books, and unlike some other fantasy series, the books are not stand-alone, meaning you have to read them chronologically otherwise it’s pointless. So from the very first book, Pawn of Prophecy, all the way to the New York Times Bestseller list topper grand finale book The Seeress of Kell, we’re talking ten books that span about thirty to forty years, each containing detailed minutiae that is essential, key, even, to understanding the overall themes of fantasy that Eddings utilizes as well as to appreciating his ‘felicity of style’. Finally, I decided the only possible way would be to review the prequel to the series which was written and published AFTER the other books were. This book spans about seven thousand years, and is told in first-person perspective, unlike the books that make up the actual series. This, I’m hoping, will work because I’ll be able to setup context better in order to review an entire series without crossing the five page limit.
Caveat Lector, if you’re new to the series this is NOT the book to start with. I mean, you could, but it would give away practically everything that happens afterwards. Of course, adherents of the book would argue that the prologue of the first book does that anyway. All of the books in the series start with prologues that are important mythological or historical texts in the world of the Belgariad, and Pawn of Prophecy begins with The Book of Alorn, a mythologized version of Belgarath the Sorcerer, which pretty much tells the entire story. The actual book is eight hundred and forty pages long, an inch and a half thick, and is filled with meaningless detail that will seem totally boring to anyone who hasn’t read the series. So I’d highly recommend you first read the ten books in the series before you read the rest of this review. It’s meant for people already familiar with the story, or, as in my case, can recite it in their sleep, hanging upside down with arms tied behind the back and wearing a blindfold made of rope and barbed-wire. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, don’t bother with the rest of this review. Get cracking on the Belgariad instead, and enjoy the journey of a young farm boy to heights of power undreamed of. Here are the Amazon and Flipkart links for the first part, Pawn of Prophecy. Lector noveau, I’ll warn you one last time. Do not continue!
For those familiar with the tale of Garion and the Orb of Aldur, welcome. I once presented a paper on the ‘History of Fantastical Writing and Legerdemain’ at a seminar back in college, mostly because a friend arm-twisted me into it to make up the numbers. I enjoyed it thoroughly, however, and I happily plagiarized much of Eddings’s own description of how he came to write the Belgariad for it. I have to say though, that when compared to the other classics of fantasy, especially Ursula LeGuin or George R.R. Martin, Eddings comes across as uni-dimensional, cliched and totally lacking in depth. It’s a great introduction to fantasy, though. I rate it a lot higher than The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), especially in its entertainment value since it lacks the pomposity and stilted style of writing that is Tolkien’s trademark. Looking back on it now, though, the Belgariad is just as formulaic as LOTR, with an orphaned farm boy put in the custody of a great magician to, in a slight reversal, recover the most powerful magical artifact in the world. Which again, is connected to a very specific sort of deity worship. Here, Aldur is the God who abstains from the world in order to protect it, while the six other Gods have races, or peoples, if you prefer, of their own.
When you read the world building that’s detailed in The Rivan Codex, a seperate book which much like The World Of The Wheel Of Time, is sort of an expanded glossary. It fills in the history of the various nation-states and their political, economical, and socio-cultural contexts in the world of the Belgariad. It’s a big world, with two North American size continents, with very different and complex systems. But it isn’t until you read Belgarath the Sorcerer that you learn exactly how much he was responsible, along with his daughter, Polgara the Sorceress (a separate, and frankly pretty awful book) for making it that way. Belgarath lives, as he himself puts it, in the world of first causes and primal events, and kings and slaves alike are pawns to be moved. While capable of great compassion and true, genuine affection, he is also a ruthless manipulator. He’s a divine zealot, essentially. If his God has said it must be so, then it must be so. They obey orders to the point of insanity, while frequently criticizing the other side for doing exactly the same thing.This is typical American Manichean fantasy, the bad guys are Mongol-type Asians, and the good guys are blond Scandanavians. In fact, the entire basis of the book comes down to the conversion of the Mallorean Emperor Zakath to Eriondism, which is Eddings’ version of Christianity. Read the two series and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the simple concept of, again, to quote directly from the series, “killing a bad god and replacing him with a good one, even if there was a lot of floundering around involved.
What I did find most refreshingly original about the Belgariad, though, and which is re-worked in Edding’s other great series, The Elenium/Tamuli, is firstly, “The Theory of Convergent Destinies.” Two equally possible possibilities. This is quite a complex cosmological philosophy, and underpins the whole book as the two “universal awarenesses” are the ones guiding our hero – the Child of Light – and his team, led by Belgarath, who isn’t actually the Child of Light in the later books but is in on occasion in this one, and the uber-villain, the Child of Dark. To summarize it very quickly, a star exploded out in the universe where it wasn’t supposed to and ignited an entire galaxy, and the universe, in order to protect herself, was forced to divide into two awarenesses. These two then become essentially the power of light and dark respectively, battle it out through their human proxies for (in this case quite literally) universal supremacy. They can’t confront each other directly, for to do so would destroy whole suns.
The other great thing is the idea of “The Will and the Word.” This is the basis of what is called sorcery in the book, and essentially means exactly what it says. You unleash the power of your will through the spoken word, and if strong enough, what you command to be will be. Here, no-one else in the book comes even close to having the kind of style, elan, and pure arrogance as Belgarath does in making the impossible seem simple. His daughter, while better at certain things, like healing (did anyone else hear the gender-stereotyping alarm?) has much more of a flair for the dramatic.
There’s little point in detailing anymore, so I’ll just finish up by saying that while not a novel as such, and very prejudiced, David Eddings is still a pretty good read, and while I’ve demoted him from my top five favourites (blame Patrick Rothfuss for that) he’s still very much in my top ten, and reading and re-reading his books has given me many an hour of pleasure and not a few sleepless nights.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org