Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Belgeriad Volume One, by David Eddings

A couple of years ago I had mentioned to someone that I had been feeling pretty burned out on high fantasy novels, largely because they all tend to heavily follow the example set by Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. There's some sort of important artifact, a band of heroes usually including a wizard, a chosen one, a tricky thief, a brave warrior, and usually a princess thrown in for good measure. It's desperately important that they retrieve/destroy said artifact because the fate of the world is at stake, you know the drill. It's been done a thousand times in a thousand ways since Gilgamesh. Of course, this doesn't mean these stories are outright bad; most of the greatest works of mythology, literature, and film have followed this trend. However, personally I can only read so many Lord of the Rings with the serial numbers filed off before I get desperate for something new and interesting.

When this series was recommended to me I was told that it followed the author explicitly followed the formula of the monomyth in a way that many people have liked. I was at least intrigued by this promise, so I decided to pick up both volumes which contain the five books in this series. The plot is, of course, exactly what you'd expect. An artifact that the fate of the very world relies upon has been stolen, prophecies are becoming fulfilled, and the time is nigh when good and evil will have an epic confrontation. There's sorcerers, warriors, thieves, and of course the chosen one. Any reader who's half awake will fill in the numbers pretty quickly, which I think was the intention of the author. And I can see how a lot of people would like the books but for me it just become....boring.

I hate to say it but I feel like there was a lot of lost opportunity with these novels. We're shown a lot of interesting characters and a lot of interesting plots. Numerous countries are suffering from political turmoil (which is, of course, being fueled by the bad guys) and much like Song of Ice and Fire, there were some really good opportunities to show all the political jockeying and shadow games in the halls of power and we get a taste of that. But then we're off on the road again, going after the all-important artifact. I feel like there was an opportunity to take a typical high fantasy quest and include all these behind the scenes elements that add depth to a story. You feel like Eddings has spent time thinking out the political elements of each of the countries we visit and developed rich backstories going back thousands of years, but they amount to little more than set pieces.

As our band of heroes continues on its merry way, you also loose all sense of urgency. We're informed by the mentor character that it's desperately important that the bad guys don't get the artifact because then they can raise their evil god, but the bad guys are always one step ahead of the heroes and all sense of urgency is lost. In the first book they actually get taken off the trail for a good amount of time because of a war council, much to the mentor's frustration, and we only get back on the trail in the second book. Throughout the second book things just seem to advance at a leisurely pace, stopping here and there to pick up more characters or foil a local plot by the bad guys. It's interesting, but I kept being nagged by the thought, "Weren't we trying to get this artifact back? Guys? Shouldn't we pick up the pace a bit?" Anyway, by the end of the second book the bad guys (surprise) have the artifact and the response from the characters seems to be just, "Eh, well we know where it is now. We'll pick it up at first convenience." Personally it just seems like a huge disconnect between the fate of the world and how high a priority it is to the characters.

I think my other big issue is with the protagonist Garion. He starts out like a typical teenager, impulsive, hormonal, prone to error, really relatable character. He's then thrust into a situation that he doesn't understand, a larger world beyond the farm where he grew up, and finds himself along on this adventure for the fate of the world. He of course thinks he's just an ordinary guy who's being dragged along, but we're not fooled for a minute. The problem I have is that as the story progresses, he grows a little bit in his abilities, but also learns that he has to control these abilities otherwise bad things can happen. And the result makes him more....bland almost. He's just sort of there and the book keeps focusing on him and his....blandness. There are half a dozen other characters who all have their own dreams, ambitions, goals, and appear to be a thousand times more interesting than Garion. Even Durnik the smith, the true everyman who's tagging along for the ride, manages to prove more interesting at times than our protagonist. It's just frustrating to have a protagonist that isn't interesting.

I will, of course, read the other two books contained in the second volume of this series,  and hopefully I'll start enjoying it more.

- Kalpar

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