Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Belgariad by David Eddings

As I mentioned previously I’ve been working through my slush pile of books, which consists of whatever I happen to pick up at the used book store that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ll usually set them aside if something else comes up, but I do try to make it back to them occasionally.  There are a couple of gems in there from time to time, as well.  And I realize that life is short, but I try to do triage in advance, and I have a general rule that I have to finish everything that looks interesting enough to start, just because sometimes things end up pleasantly surprising you.

That’s one paragraph in and I haven’t said anything about the subject of the review yet – somewhere an English teacher is weeping.  So, thesis statement:  I didn’t like this one very much at all.  The Belgariad is a five-volume fantasy epic  by David Eddings.  (One good point:  the volumes are of quite moderate size.)  I’d heard vague favorable things about it in the past somewhere.  In retrospect this might have been a good sign to think about it more closely before beginning, because if I’d looked it up I would have discovered that Eddings made a list of every cliché that exists in fantasy literature and decided to make a story that incorporated all of them.  So if someone sets out to write a highly derivative and unoriginal work, is the work then a failure for being highly derivative and unoriginal?  Or is it a success?  I’ll leave that one up to the Zen masters and declare that either way I found it super annoying and I probably should have stopped reading it, with only increasing disbelief and sheer-bloody mindedness getting me to the end.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the story deals with Garion, who is (of course) a farm boy of approximately fifteen being raised by his aunt in the middle of a realm which is known for solid, practical sorts.  You know what, let’s just do some bullet points:
  • Garion has a birthmark which means that he’s descended from the line of the Rivan King, which makes him royalty and also means he’s the only one that can touch the Orb, a magical artifact which in the hands of the Dark God Torak can unmake the world; 
  •  Garion’s aunt turns out to be his many-greats aunt and an immortal sorceress, and the old storyteller turns out to be his many-greats grandfather and an immortal sorcerer.  Garion turns out to have powerful sorcerous powers of his own;
  •  There’s a prophecy which states that Garion will defeat Torak;
  •  From the beginning at the farm this crew manages to accumulate a posse of various ethnicities and abilities from the kingdoms they pass through;
  •  Including a runaway princess about Garion’s age who constantly bickers with him.  She also has red hair, non-human heritage and a name spelled with unnecessary apostrophes;
  •  Despite being, up to this point, an illiterate laborer, Garion turns out to be a leader of men, master sorcerer, potent warrior, and manages to engage a god in single combat before settling down with the princess and restoring peace to the land.

Oh, and did I mention that the prophecy is an actual character that can speak to Garion and tell him what he ought to do next?  Just in case you were wondering if there was any suspense, or anything.

As far as the writing goes, it’s basically reasonable journeyman prose, no particular issues there.  It’s all the metatextual issues that annoy me so much; in that Eddings basically seems to know better but takes the clichéd way out anyway.  I could probably make a pretty substantial list of the things that irritate me in this book.  In fact, let me do that:

  •  This fictional world is composed of a bunch of racially and culturally homogenous kingdoms.  As soon as you meet anyone you’ll be able to tell their personality at one glance.  Naturally all the good characters are white, even the nomadic horse-people culture, and believe in freedom, justice, truth, etc. although they live in feudalistic kingdoms.  The bad guys are Asiatic with heavy facial scars, exist in vast hordes, and are uniformly committed to doing evil on behalf of their human-sacrificing priesthood caste.  (For variety, there’s also a tribe of dark-skinned devil worshipers.)  This is just flat-out lazy and unforgivable.  Tolkien himself felt bad about making the Orcs uniformly evil later in life – he was a devout Catholic and after some reflection realized that by giving them some sort of moral agency would have been more appropriate.  There’s no excuse for doing it in the 1980s.  Which leads me to . . .
  •  The excessive protagonist-centered morality.  Garion and crew do quite a few morally dubious things throughout this series, including but not limited to:  sacking cities, burning people alive, entombing people alive, putting magical compulsions on people, theft, and changing people into animals.  In addition they essentially commit a few acts of out and out murder as distinct from combat.  Some of the characters even notice that their behavior isn’t necessarily all that different from that of the erstwhile bad guys.  And on that subject . . .
  •  Eddings’ characterization is in some ways way too good for this stupid plot.  He goes to considerable effort to make the princess a whiny, entitled brat, which is probably a reasonable enough way for such a person to be portrayed, but then he forgets to throw in the good parts.  She’s a main character so naturally we’ll root for her to fall in love with the hero, right?  If I were told I’d have to marry her I’d saw my own limbs off . . .
  •  Garion is a total slave to prophecies and he does whatever it, his grandfather or his aunt tell him he has to do.  He’ll travel where told, fight when told, get engaged to the princess, go on ludicrously dangerous quests, etc.  Despite being portrayed as a super-powerful sorcerer he never had any sort of training to use his powers; despite the reader being told that he is highly intelligent he is illiterate until about halfway through the series.  (His aunt didn’t teach him because she didn’t want him to accidentally read prophecies and get a big head (!) but he nonetheless had apparently no intellectual curiosity of any kind prior to the events of these novels.)
  •  Garion is an instant expert in fields where required, such as combat, sorcery, planning, prophetic interpretation, etc.  One of his very first acts of sorcery is to do something that Belgarath, his seven-thousand year old great-whatever grandfather, believes is fatal to even attempt.  He also masters swordplay during about a six month period where he doesn’t have any time to practice, from what we can tell.
  •  All of his companions are the very best in the world at whatever their stereotypical skill is, which means in battle they take on ridiculous numbers of foes and are in no particular danger, even trading supposed witticisms as they invariably prevail.  At other times they inexplicably skulk and hide from enemies that shouldn’t be that much of a threat, often spending long stretches cowering, which doesn't make a lot of sense considering that they win every fight they do have without any difficulty.  They also have vastly erratic abilities to detect the bad guys; sometimes they can detect them with their special abilities from miles away, other times they get inexplicably ambushed (such as inside fortresses and other places you wouldn’t expect hostile characters to even be able to enter at all).
In addition to all this, there are a couple of scenes that show a bunch of starving serfs living in squalor, and who later join up with Garion’s army simply to have a meal.  Yet at the end there’s no indication given that any of the factors which led to these poor bastards being in that state have really changed, and I guess we’re just supposed to forget about all the poverty and injustice as Garion gets to go back to his kingdom and . . . they return to their miserable shantytown and pay oppressive taxes to their overlords?  I guess?  I mean, this isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire or anything but it’s bad form to bring up this sort of awareness of why feudalism is so terrible and then ignore it.  This strikes me as even worse than just not mentioning it at all.  It’s the same with some of the aftermath of battles that the good guys are responsible for.

Everyone also gets married at the end and has lots of kids, whether they’ve shown any inclination for that sort of life and without regard to whether it really makes any sense given what we’ve been told about them or whether their partner is really a suitable match.

I could go on, but frankly I think that’s got it sufficiently covered.  I had the good luck to read Lloyd Alexander and Tolkien first, which has heavily biased what sort of fantasy literature I can tolerate.  I might have liked this more when I was a very young teen, but I’m not 100% sure about that, and anyway I don’t think this is intended to be a YA novel.  There’s apparently a sequel to this series where they do it all over again, but I think I’ll be skipping that one.

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