The Belgariad Volume One by David Eddings

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

The Belgariad Volume One is an omnibus of the first three books in The Belgariad epic fantasy by David Eddings. I began reading it early in June. I was reading/listening to a few other things at the same time, so it took me over three weeks to get through Pawn of Prophecy. Queen of Sorcery took me two weeks. And then I read Magician’s Gambit in two or three days while I was sick.  Since I already reviewed Pawn of Prophecy, this review will focus more on the others, but also give my overall impressions of the series.

Review of The Belgariad Volume One by David Eddings | Lydia Sanders #TwistyMustacheReviews

Things I Liked

The Realism

The bad guys aren’t one united mega-power bent on taking over the world. Warring factions and opposed wills within Torak’s followers make the story more realistic and gives Eddings an opportunity to raise the stakes as the orb falls into the hands of worse and worse bad guys.

Likewise, the “good” side is complex. Not everyone West of the mountains is the picture of morality or would agree on what exactly that means. Even within the hero’s traveling party morality is allowed to be a bit hazy.

When one of the characters is rescued in a way that might seem too convenient, it has a hidden cost. I can’t talk about this much without spoilers, but it allows the rescued character to foil another character’s fears. This brings a bunch of things together to make the book feel less like a bunch of stuff on a page and more like a story.

I also love how Eddings weaves Belgarath and Polgara’s long lives into the history of the places they visit. They’ve experienced ruins before they were ruined, learned languages, and experienced other cultures—things that would be totally logical if one lived for thousands of years.

The Writing

Eddings had a great grasp of the English language. On a sentence level, the writing is excellent. Some of his descriptions are lovely, and a few of the societies in his world are unlike anything I’ve read before.

I also like the way Eddings used Garion’s personal crisis in book two to catch the reader up on the story thus far.

There’s plenty of humor in this series. Sometimes scenes seem to exist to hold up Eddings’ one-liners, but they’re great one-liners.

Things I Didn’t Like

Brace yourself. This section is longer. In an attempt to make it a rewarding read, I include links to Youtube videos on some of the things I gripe about. It's also worth noting that things I find boring and cliche now might not have been cliches in the early 80s when these books were written.

Character Development

The characters from book one that I found interesting weren’t developed much further. Sad day! They were the main reason I continued reading.

Plot and Foreshadowing

I found the plot boring, predictable, and cliche. Sometimes it seemed like Eddings was bent on checking all of the Hero’s Journey boxes regardless of whether they were necessary. This includes a literal “woman as temptress” plotline in Queen of Sorcery.

Garion’s party travels through country after country on the quest, presumably so that the reader can experience all of the world building. I found some of it interesting, but a lot more of it wasn’t.

Eddings sometimes allows characters new magical abilities to deal with their problems, making elements of the plot seem contrived and unsatisfying. Even when these abilities are foreshadowed, they seem unnatural and overly convenient.

The things he does foreshadow tend to be really obvious anyway and make the story even more predictable. Garion’s love interest, for instance.

Cardboard Villains

The villains in this story are cheesy and cartoonish. They do things like oppressing the poor and behaving sadistically when it’s not even advantageous. For instance, there’s a section early in Queen of Sorcery where peasants have a bizarre conversation about starvation and taxes. The problem with this is that it’s not to a lord’s advantage to oppress his people so much that they’re starving. The upper class needs workers or their lands aren’t worth much because they can’t produce!  Keeping at least most of his peasants and serfs satisfied is in his best interest as a business person.

There are other incidents of theatrical and pointless violence that exist solely to show just how evil some bad guys are. These people are definitely not the heroes of their own stories—it’s all for the shock value.

The villain’s conversation in the climactic scene of Magician’s Gambit is terrible and petty. It includes lame bargaining and a totally false “We’re not so different” speech. I was unimpressed with his intelligence for a variety of reasons. He's more annoying than scary.

Doormat Chosen One

Garion isn’t the driving force for hardly anything in these books (at least thus far). He goes through a brief teenager angsty rebellion and then learns the lesson that his aunt and grandfather are right and that he should obey them. Frankly, he was more interesting when the adults excluded him from everything and he wandered around getting into trouble. Now he’s like a Chosen One doormat resigned to his destiny—whatever that is.  Aside from the implication that he’ll defeat the bad guys, there’s not much explicit mention of what exactly Garion is going to do. I caught myself wondering if Eddings deliberately left the prophecies fuzzy so that he could have creative wiggle room later.

Ethical Issues

Belgarath's character is in favor of Murgo persecution and/or genocide. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Eddings would agree (his characters are all over the map on their beliefs, so he can’t agree with them all), since no one seems to object, I think he probably would. It’s always problematic in a fantasy series when there’s an evil race or evil country because it implies that the individuals in that society or of that race have no personal control over their actions and will always be immoral. It also implies that it’s perfectly acceptable to kill those people. Think about that for a moment. Would you recommend such an angle for human societies? I certainly wouldn’t.

On the flip side, if the gods of this world are real and some of them really are evil, societies that worship them could be evil to the point where decent folks are at least the exception, and for those of us who are religious and do believe in supernatural beings, that brings up important ethical questions about the real world.

Other Comments

The temple of Torak conjured up images in my mind of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Do with that what you will.

Early on in book two, I started mentally sorting characters into their D&D and Guild Wars 2 classes.

The Mimbrates use “thee” and “thou” and other archaic language forms as a sort of fancy courtesy/putting-on-airs thing, but those forms were actually informal English, not formal.

Nyssia seems to be loosely based off of Egypt and Salmissra off of the popular imagination of Cleopatra. Last month Sarcastic Productions put out a great video on Cleopatra that I encourage you to go check out.

*Spoilers* In order to steal the orb, Zedar had to get a “pure” and innocent child to pick it up, carry it, etc. Eddings filled this role with a blond-haired blue-eyed little boy. *End spoilers*

My mental image was something like this Precious Moments illustration. I think that if I were to use this trope in one of my books, I wouldn’t pick a white kid, or at the very least I wouldn't pick one that is the epitome of the "fair" European fairytale stereotype. Hair color, skin color, eye shape, and other markers of ethnicity have no inherent connection with morality, and it's a great disservice to both readers and the culture at large when writers reinforce racial stereotypes.

Bottom line

I didn’t care for this series. After book one I was optimistic that it would get better, but if it’s like this after three books, I just can’t be optimistic anymore. I’ve read the summaries for the next two books, and while they’re not inherently boring I doubt that Eddings wrote them in a way that would be interesting and not overly predictable and cliche. I give my experience of the first three books three out of seven twisty mustaches and have no intention of finishing the series.

Have you read The Belgariad? What did you think of it? Are there any other books you'd like me to read and review? Leave a comment below or my hairless ghost lemur will haunt your dreams.

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