Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings
Cover art by Laurence Schwinger
Published by Del Rey Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
When JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings came out, it ignited an enormous demand for more epic fantasy. However, publishers soon found they really didn't have a whole lot of material to offer that would scratch the same itch Tolkien had for their readers. There were the various thud-and-blunder heroic fantasy stories of Robert E. Howard and his imitators. There were the various whimsical wonder stories of L. Frank Baum and the like, which often were perceived as being aimed more at children than adults. And there were the various weird stories of H. P. Lovecraft and his imitators, which sometimes seemed to crossbreed a little with the Conan the Barbarian style of heroic adventurer fighting against sinister priesthoods of decadent cities, because sometimes those sinister gods weren't just idols created to better fleece the sheep, but actual eldritch entities manipulating humanity for sinister purposes. And of course there were stories like André Norton's Witch World and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover, in which fantasy was given a thin covering of science and technology and marketed as science fiction.
But there weren't any other grand visions of self-consistent Secondary Worlds where a grand struggle of Good against Evil played itself out, so publishers were quite eager to sign on authors who could provide just that sort of story. Among the first authors to do so were Terry Brooks, with The Sword of Shannara and Stephen R. Donaldson with Lord Foul's Bane. Never mind that the first was a straight-up ripoff of Tolkien and the other seemed to be a postmodern deconstruction of the entire concept of epic fantasy, the readers were hungry enough for more that they'd take whatever they were given and demand even more. More than both authors writing as fast as possible could hope to produce. So Lester Del Rey was looking for additional authors to add to his stable.
Among them was David Eddings, who began to write after taking a course in literary criticism. According to his own account, he drew a map on a sheet of paper from a ring binder and labeled it with the various peoples of his world. It's a rather odd and simplified map, and the structure of mountains, rivers and the like make no sense in terms of geology -- but if, like so many fantasy worlds, its the specific creation of one or more divine entities rather than of billion years of evolutionary processes, it could be however the god or gods want it to be, as long as it holds together and doesn't self-destruct from the contradictory forces working on it. It wouldn't even necessarily have to be a spheroidal planet orbiting in space around star, if the gods could somehow make a flat world and heavenly bodies as little lamps hanging from the firmament work.
The story begins with a prolog telling the history of the gods and how the various peoples came to be. Perhaps in those early days, when modern epic fantasy was still a relatively new genre, there was a sense that readers needed Important Background Information right up front in order to understand the story, and if they were simply tossed into the story, they'd get lost and abandon the book. However, it's become such an expected thing that if one picks up a random fat fantasy, it's very apt to begin with such a dry summation of the fictional world's creation myth. The result has been a tendency to distance the reader, who may just decide to skip past the history lesson to get to the action -- assuming that the action actually has some flavor, and doesn't prove to be more dry summation, as was the case with Jacqueline Carey's frustrating duology The Sundering (Banewreaker and Godslayer), which was particularly annoying for readers who'd been sucked right into her Kushiel novels and expected another immersive experience.
At least Eddings does avoid that pitfall and got the story moving on a personal level after that, but to a contemporary reader the first several chapters of the actual narrative is apt to be downright boring, as we are treated to endless passages of Garion's childhood on an obscure farm where his Aunt Pol is chief cook. Here he has important character-building experiences, making friends, getting into trouble, and then learning that he must never, ever mention the name of Torak, but that Aunt Pol can't explain why because he's too young to understand the reasons.
Maybe it's presumptuous, but if I had been writing this novel, I would've started at just that scene, when Garion first bumps his nose up against the fact that the safe, cozy world of the farm on which he's grown up is in fact a fragile bubble of safety surrounded by Very Dangerous Things, and that while adults have been carefully protecting him for all these years, they aren't all-powerful, and if he determinedly attracts danger to himself, they can't protect him. It immediately presents the reader with the juxtaposition of homey comfort against terrible danger, and a mystery. Who is Torak? Why is it so dangerous to mention his name?
But I didn't write it, and its beginning is what it is, however flawed it may be. It's a measure of just how hungry readers were for epic Secondary World fantasy back then, and how little the conventions of the genre were developed, that this slow beginning would be not only tolerated, but quite possibly mandated by the editor. Compare it to the slam-bang beginnings of Sherwood Smith's Inda or Beth Bernobich's Passion Play, both of which toss us straight into the world through young people at play, and simultaneously give us bits of vital information about the fictional world and get us involved in what becomes an increasingly dangerous situation for the protagonists until we're hooked and can't put the book down until we're done.
This scene is followed by another missed opportunity for great writing, with the appearance of the mysterious and mischievous old storyteller Wolf, who relates the story of the gods -- a story that's already been laid out summary-fashion in that never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed prolog. Now imagine how much more engaging the story might have been if we'd learned it for the first time right alongside Garion as the old man tells it, rather like how in Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Dart we the readers learn right alongside Phedre the story of the Blessed Elua and his Companions and the beginnings of Terre d'Ange -- especially since in both cases the lesson is followed by major life changes that expand the protagonist's worldview and understanding of their place in it.
This poorly-executed delivery of backstory is followed by a further interlude of childhood chores and childish pranks, interrupted by the sinister appearance of several outsiders asking sinister questions. As the tensions rise, there's another quick and awkward discussion between Aunt Pol and the mysterious Wolf, ending in the decision that they must depart the farm.
Here we have many of the narrative elements of the first several chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, but rearranged such that the similarities aren't immediately obvious to the reader. After all, Garion is a child rather than a neotenous adult, so the obvious storyline to be followed is the Bildungsroman, the story of a young person growing up and coming to terms with the adult world. So it's not immediately obvious that we're looking at the parallels of Gandalf telling Frodo the story of the Ruling Ring, of the mysterious Black Riders nosing about the Shire, and of the flight of Frodo and his friends to Bree and their encounter with the mysterious Strider.
Not to mention that we will soon discover that Garion's family history places him in a position more akin to Aragorn than Frodo, for he is in fact the long-prophesied descendant of a noble line, although in this case of sorcerers rather than kings. But like Aragorn, he's been raised in hiding in order to protect him from the minions of the Dark Lord, who'd be glad to destroy him, whether by killing him or by turning him to the darkness.
As Garion is on the road, he meets more people who will be important to him, including the warrior Barak (a name that didn't have the associations in 1982 it has gained in the second decade of the twenty-first century) and the spy Silk. Raised to be diligent and industrious and to dislike idleness, Garion passes the time while hidden in a wagon by learning the secret language of finger signs from Silk.
After this interlude, our protagonists finally arrive in Cherek, an icy, windswept land that calls to mind Scandinavia, or at least the stereotypical images of the land of the Vikings. The people are big, burly and blond and like to fight a lot. They're good friends and fierce enemies,
And that points up what may well be the greatest weakness of Eddings' work -- his Secondary World is fundamentally a Planet of Hats. All members of each ethnic group belong to a predictable type, and so far as I can tell, there is never an effort to cast against type. One could argue that this is simply imitative of Tolkien's example, but if one reads Tolkien more closely, we see examples of characters who move beyond their racial and ethnic Hats and become unique individuals. We see an elf come to appreciate the beauties of a spectacular cave system, and a dwarf who sees a forest as elves do. We even get hints that perhaps the tribes allied with Mordor have families and lives beyond their assault on the free peoples of the West, and perhaps some of them obeyed Sauron's call out of fear rather than love of evil. And much as Tolkien has been excoriated for having created always-evil races, in his later years he became extremely disturbed by the ontological implications of the orcs and trolls, and among his later papers are several lengthy efforts to grapple with it in a way theologically consistent with his firmly-held Catholic faith, including the possibility that orcs and trolls were in fact the embodied forms of lesser Maiar (angels) who had joined in Melkor's rebellion against Eru Iluvatar.
Even with all its flaws, Pawn of Prophecy is not a bad book. It's good, fun light reading, but it's best read when one is old enough for sustained reading of multi-chapter books, but young enough not to be bothered by the lack of depth and complexity in the worldbuilding. If you come to it after having read more recent works, it will read rather like the literary equivalent of a statue that looks beautiful from the front, but if you take a closer look, proves to have no back, just hollow bronze or unshaped stone.
Review posted December 14, 2012.
Buy Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, No 1) from Amazon.com