So, once again, we boldly attempt to review a series. You’ll note that it’s a fantasy series, I tend to confine my series reviews to that genre. Less famous, but actually a lot better than the more well known known Belgariad and Mallorean series by the same author (and a lot of reviewers on SFreviews agree with me), the Elenium series (and its sequel, the Tamuli) follows a very similar plot-line, a hero and a group of friends must quest halfway across the world (in the first series, they do the second half in the next) to save the world from a great horror (usually an evil God) by recovering a jewel of great power (The Bhelliom). Sound like a familiar story? Of course it is. But therein lies the genius and the beauty of it. As the author himself says, in a tongue-in cheek joke in one of the later books, it’s not always what a story tells, it’s how it tells it. Eddings, through much practice and refining of his art, has raised the notion of felicity of style to a whole new level. I debated reviewing both series – The Elenium and The Tamuli (for those of you not paying attention) - together, but I think that would complicate things unnecessarily, not to mention make this review that much longer. And if the review interests you enough to pick up and get stuck into the Elenium series, there’s absolutely no chance of you not moving on to it’s sequel. Yes, it really is that good, for very simple reasons.
In The Rivan Codex, Eddings lists the ten elements required to tell a typical fantasy good vs evil story. These are a theology, the quest, the magic thingamajig, the hero, the wizard, the heroine, the diabolical villain, the (male) companions on the quest, the ladies in attendance on these companions and the rulers and government officials. This has been conveniently listed on the Green Man Review, so I don’t have to detail it myself, though I duly knowledge the source. Here it is:
- Theology: The lands in the Elenium are not theocracies, but their complex religious beliefs are at the core of their social organization. Each country and race in Eosia has one or more gods of various levels of power (the Elene God, the Elder and Younger Gods of Styricum, the Troll Gods, etc.). In general, people worship their own god or gods, but acknowledge that others’ deities exist. Followers of the Elene God are partial exceptions to this. Their hierarchy denies the reality of any other gods, but their orders of chivalry (the Church Knights — Pandions, Cyrinics, Alciones and Genidians) depend on Styric mystics and their gods to perform magic.
- Quest: To find the Bhelliom and use its power to cure the poisoned Queen Ehlana of Elenia, and then to dispose of the Bhelliom.
- Magic thingamajig: The Bhelliom, or Sapphire Rose, a gem that gives its owner vast power.
- Hero: Sparhawk, hereditary Queen’s Champion, a Pandion knight sans peur et sans reproche, a valiant warrior and model of courtesy.
- Wizard: Sephrenia, the Styric priestess of the Child-Goddess Aphrael, who has tutored the Pandions in magic for centuries.
- Heroine: Ehlana, Queen of Elenia. She is much younger than Sparhawk, but greatly in love with him. She is spoiled, imperious, shrewd and beautiful — exactly what one would expect of a storybook princess.
- Diabolical villain: The evil Zemoch God Azash, along with his minions the (aspiring) Archprelate Annias, the renegade Pandion Martel and Martel’s flunkeys Krager and Adus. (Err, you sort of left out Otha, Greenmanreview. As the high priest and human representative of Azash, not to mention the absolute ruler of the kingdom of Zemoch, where Azash dwells, he’s fairly important too.)
- Male companions on the quest: Sparhawk’s squire Kalten (Kurik, actually) and horse Faran (definitely male, and definitely a companion, not a beast of burden); two other Pandions (Kalten and the novice Berit); the representatives of the other orders of Church Knights (Tynian the Alcione, Bevier the Cyrinic, Ulath the Genidian); and the lad Talen.
- Attendant ladies: Kalten (again, this should be Kurik, Sparhawk’s squire; sorry Greenmanreview) has a wife, Aslade, at home, and Sparhawk is pledged to Queen Ehlana, but the other Church Knights are unattached. Sephrenia in no way falls into this category. Perhaps the little Styric girl they call Flute is the closest the companions on the quest have to an attendant lady — and that’s not very.
- Rulers and government officials: These include the royal family of Elenia (living and dead), the rulers of the other kingdoms in Eosia and the religious hierarchies.
The differences between the Belgariad and the Elenium are simple but profound. Eddings briefly touches on them in his book, The Rivan Codex, which, incidentally, is a sort of expanded glossary to the Belgariad series. For one, the Elenium starts in media res, a literary and artistic narrative technique wherein the relation of a story begins either at the mid-point or at the conclusion, rather than at the beginning. The main protagonist is a knight named Sparhawk, and the story kicks off with him returning from a ten year exile in the dry dusty desert kingdom of Rendor to his home, Cimmura, the capital of the kingdom of Elenia. It’s not all a rosy return though. The reason he’s come back is because the king who exiled him is dead, and his daughter, who is now queen, had ordered his return should that happen. Sparhawk had trained Ehlana, the queen, when she was a little girl, but was then forced to leave. He returns to find his queen a full grown woman, but a full grown woman encased in what makes the first part is called The Diamond Throne. Why is this, you ask? Or perhaps you don’t, because you either already know or don’t really care. If the latter is the case, don’t bother clicking on read more when you get to it. This is where the plot gets interesting. There are, but naturally, a lot of parallels with the Belgariad series, and I’ll allude to some of them as we go along. But it might be appropriate here to briefly explain the politics of the kingdoms and the Church on the continent of Eosia, where the Elenium story is set. Here’s where we should get to the read more, I think. For non-Eddings fans, this is where you should stop and start on the books themselves. May muh tongue turn green iffnn yous’ll ain’t be as happy as a pig in mud.
If you’ve read Edding’s other series, you’ll know he usually kicks off his books with a prologue that’s a historical, or sometimes quasi-historical telling of the history of the events that have transpired up to the point where the story starts. These are taken from various sources, university histories, religious holy books, militant order chronicles, and the like. The Elenium is no different, The Diamond Throne (Part I) starts with an account of the history of the Bhelliom, The Ruby Knight (Part II) starts with a history of the noble House of Sparhawk, and The Sapphire Rose (Part III) with a history of the rise of the evil God Azash. Edding’s technique, as he describes it, is to use archetypical myth to insert what he calls ‘mythical fish-hooks’ into the first few chapters of a book, and The Diamond Throne is no exception. All the ten elements above are outlined clearly therein, liberally sprinkled with hooks told through a rather contrived and weak attempt on the part of one of the villains (the Primate Annias) to discredit the Pandion militant order to which Sparhawk belongs. Of course, there’s a reason why the attempt is so clumsy and obvious, but you won’t know why until you’re well into the sequel of the Elenium series, the Tamuli. That’s a good four books away.
So the expected story unfolds. Joined by the champions of the other militant orders, Sparhawk, his squire Kurik, and Sephrenia the Styric sorceress, head out to find a cure for Ehlana. The Diamond Throne revolved primarily around them finding out what that is, and The Ruby Knight on finding the object of power itself. Both of them build up to The Sapphire Rose, perhaps one of the finest concluding books in fantasy history, certainly I can’t recall one offhand that was so satisfying to read, but that might be because most of my favourite series aren’t finished yet. The outcome was predictable (the war’s over, and we won) but the intricacies of the political intrigue to thwart Annias from gaining the throne of the Archprelate, a position with the power and authority akin to a medieval Pope in the Elene Church are superbly written, as it escalates from pure theocratic politics to all-out war in and over Chyrellos, the richest city in the world and the centre of the Elene Church and where the Basilica is located. Everything you’d want in a good entertaining story is there, theological political intrigue and military machinations of wonderfully Machiavellian complexity culminating in a battle-siege of the great city itself,the development of the romantic relationship between Sparhawk and Ehlana, and eventually, the revelation of the truth behind the moves of Annias and the expected culminatory confrontation with the Elder God Azash and Otha in their temple-stronghold of the city of Zemoch.
There’s quite a bit more moral ambivalence in the Elenium/Tamuli than there is in the Belgariad, although it’s still a very standard us versus them heroic fantasy format. As Sparhawk himself says to Ehlana in one of the other books (The Shining Ones, I think, which is part II of the Tamuli series), “We’re going to win, love. Nothing can stop us. All that’s left is the tedious plodding from here to the victory line”. Which is more or less true, but again, the Knights of felicity of style and archetypical myth triumph over the dragons of cliche and formulaic pedantry. It’s the deft weaving of these elements together, essentially, that makes the Elenium series a great read, and its sequel, the Tamuli series just as good if not better.
A book designer, Arati has always enjoyed books and the world of imagination that they open up. She is extremely accident-prone, due entirely to absent-mindedness caused by thinking about books and their contents, instead of paying attention to what she's actually supposed to be doing. She reads multiple books simultaneously, and her choices range from cookbooks and design manuals to fantasy, crime and Regency romances.
She lives and works in London, UK and sells her art on paper and textiles at Etsy