On trying to read Pawn of Prophecy

In 1997 or thereabouts, a friend’s wife lent me a book that she thought I’d enjoy.  Three years later, my family and I moved to a different part of London; a couple of years after that, my friend’s marriage broke up; fast forward a few more years and we moved out of London, I got a Ph.D in palaeontology, my wife got an MA in Music Therapy, I started writing The Reinvigorated Programmer … and the book remained unread.

This is that book: David Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy, the first volume in his five-volume masterwork À la Recherche du Temps Perdu The Belgariad:

I just can’t make myself read it.

And here is why — from the back-cover blurb:

Long ago, so the Storyteller claimed, the evil God Torak sought dominion and drove men and Gods to war.  But Belgarath the Sorcerer led men to reclaim the Orb that protected men of the West.  So long as it lay at Riva, the prophecy went, men would be safe.

Maybe it’s a really good book, but I can’t get past that horrible, portentous prose.  “Storyteller” gets a capital letter, because he’s not just a storyteller, oh no.  “Gods” gets a capital despite the universal convention that only a single God gets the capital, and plural gods don’t — presumably to make the evil god Torak more menacing.  (Also: whenever I read this, I can’t help but think of Chris Torek, who wrote device drivers for Berkeley Unix back in the 1980s.  But I digress.)  “Orb” gets a capital, of course, because a mere orb would never have the power to keep men safe.  Only an Orb can do that.  At least, so the prophecy goes.

But that was only a story, and Garion did not believe in magic dooms, even though the dark man without a shadow had haunted him for years.

What?  Why the heck not?  I’d have thought that if a dark man without a shadow has haunted you for years, you’d need to be positively cloth-headed not to suspect there must be something in these magic Dooms.  (Make that “magic dooms”.  The word “doom” inexplicably does not get a capital.)

“But Mike!”, you cry, “It’s terribly silly of you to dismiss a book on the strength of the back-cover blurb, which is not even written by the author.”  I can’t deny it.  So let’s turn to the prologue, which is the work of Eddings himself.  (And why do all these books have to have prologues?  They are rarely a good idea — at best they are convenient places to dump exposition.)

When the world was new, the seven Gods dwelt in harmony, and the races of man were as one people.  Belar, youngest of the Gods, was beloved by the Alorns [whatever they may have been].  He abode with them and cherished them, and they prospered in his care.  And so on, and so forth.

I dunno, it just sticks in my eyes as I try to read it.  (That was a clumsy attempt at a metaphor analogous with words that stick in my throat then I try to say them.)  It’s … what’s the word … lumpen.

(I say this, by the way, as one who has read both the First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and enjoyed them enough to re-read all six volumes, possibly twice.  It’s not that Epic Fantasy isn’t my thing, even Bad Epic Fantasy, which most people seem to agree the Covenant books are.  It’s the sheer leadenness of this specimen that hurts.)

Writing archaic prose is hard.  It needs a subtle touch and a trained ear.  To do it well you’d need to be, I don’t know, a linguist or something.

But here is the thing — there are people, and plenty of them, that love the Belgariad.  If I could get past the blurb and the preface, maybe I could be one of those people?  This book must have something that’s grabbing them, and if so then maybe that something can grab me, too?

So I will probably be making a good, solid attempt and reading Pawn of Prophecy — if only so I have something to distract me from having stalled four pages into Dune.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Irrelevant announcement

After years of flatly refusing to tweet, loftily claiming that “anything that can be said in 140 characters is too trivial to be worth saying”, I gave in a couple of months ago, and can now be found on https://twitter.com/#!/SauropodMike.  I signed up only so that I could post links to my new blog entries there, but I’ve been impressed at how useful it actually is, and how flexible the very simple Twitter approach is as a basis for building all sorts of things like live central-Edinburgh travel reports, or communal commenting on broadcasts of old Doctor Who episodes.  Also there are some people who can consistently come up with funny things to say in 140 characters.

So I am a reluctant convert to Twitter.  Maybe I will also be a reluctant convert to Eddings?

37 responses to “On trying to read Pawn of Prophecy

  1. “Maybe it’s a really good book, but I can’t get past that horrible, portentous prose.”

    Or maybe it’s a pretty bad book. True fact: you can figure out where the characters will go next by looking at the map and picking the nearest country they haven’t already been to.

    If you want a payoff for digging through a book you find difficult to read, Dune is a mother lode; the Belgariad is thinly veined with fool’s gold at best.

  2. Spaceman Spiff

    I read it a zillion years ago (probably when the Orb was still protecting the people of the West) and enjoyed it well enough. It’s not on my list of favorite stories, however; so go ahead and donate it to your local library’s book faire… :-)

  3. Travis Schneeberger

    How is it that we both stalled on the same series in the same year except in the reverse? I stopped reading the Belgariad on the third book and the Dune series on book two. Book number three of Belgariad was actually interesting but it just didn’t suck me in. Even the Pawn of prophecy took me two tries to finish after being persuaded by a friend to give it another try. The first Dune book is actually really good but the second starts out really slow and is a bit too political for my taste. I had a really hard time following it for the very same reasons you criticized book one – (who is that?, what is that word? bleh, bleh).

    You didn’t try Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shanara series by chance? That would have been last year’s failed book series for me. If so, that would just be too creepy.

  4. I greatly enjoyed it myself… when I was 12. I strongly recommend you re(-re)ad (or watch in case of the latter) The Wheel of Time series (which will be complete real soon now) or A Song of Ice and Fire.

  5. Travis, I have not read any Terry Brooks, and nothing that I have read about him suggests to me that I should.

    Jerry, I will surely not be reading any Wheel of Time — but I did greatly enjoy Adam Roberts’ masochistic series of reviews of the first eleven WOT books.

  6. I liked The Belgariad when I was 13, a reread had me liking it more for the nostalgia than the quality. It IS a whole lot better than the blurb and prologue would lead you to believe.

    The plots seem heavy handed and cliche now (really, orphan boy with a silver birthmark on his palm that his Aunt goes to great pains to hide?), the characters more like caricatures, and the national identities border on racist, but somehow it’s still an entertaining read. The Mallorean, despite being a sequel series that there was no need for, is far more engaging. I won’t argue in favour of this as hard as I would for Dune. The Belgariad is a really simple, light reading kind of story. Good for bite size consumption, like the train ride to work.

  7. Actually, I’ll add to that by saying it’s probably a good book to give your kids, depending on their age. No graphic sex or anything, like a lot of fantasy novels have, and the plot isn’t so complex as to confuse an early-teen type.

    A better recommendation for an avid-reader kid, though, would be The Doorways Trilogy, by Michael Pryor. Interesting tale about a band of people wandering between worlds, trying to prevent the unraveling of the entire multiverse, throw in a dispossessed princess, her usurper cousin, and you’ve got a winner. Also see Talent, and Blackout, by Michael Pryor. Talent, about a government program in a dystopian future for bringing out special abilities in otherwise ordinary people; Blackout is about surviving in the world after an EMP wipes out all electronics. All of Pryor’s stuff is aimed at the “young adult” market, so you’ll find all the main characters are early to late teens.

  8. Dude — just don’t go there. This is one of those series that is utterly terrible, unless you’re 12. If you’re 12, its bloody fantastic, in the same way the movie Clash of the Titans is fantastic.

    Sword of Shannara is like this as well .. somehow I adored it as a kid, but just try to read the first chapter and not choke on your own soul.

    Or Dragonlance…

  9. Actually, that description of the Alorns and all that — sure makes me think of the game Populace, with lots of little minions running around just waiting for us to deposit a volcano on them. *presses finger tips together*

  10. You should have read it at high school. It’s good enough light fantasy for a teenager, but as you’ve surmised, it’s really pretty terrible. Eddings seems to thing that all you need for a successful fantasy book is a bunch of funny sounding names. Even the Xanth stuff is better than this (and at least Piers Anthony doesn’t take himself anywhere near as seriously as Eddings does).

  11. Jeff hits the nail on the head — when I was an immature teen, I loved the series, and read everything Eddings wrote. Then I grew up to be an immature adult, re-read the series and figured out that not only is Eddings a poor and unimaginative author in general, he actually wrote the same story not once, but *four* times — The Malloreon is the same story again, with mostly the same major characters, where he even goes so far as to integrate an explanation for the repetitive nature of the stories into the story itself. The Elenium is again the same story, this time with a different universe and characters (but curiously, *all* the same walking stereotypes are present — including the Orb!), and The Tamuli is a re-run of The Elenium.

  12. This, of course, coming from someone who can barely contain himself waiting for the last installation of the Wheel of Time. But at this point wanting the last part is just sheer bloody-mindedness. I’ve been reading the damn series for something like sixteen years with no end in sight.

  13. I can only concur with the comments above – I was gripped by these books when I was 12, but had lost interest in reading more by the time I was 16.
    I’d definitely recommend them to anyone in that age range – but not to an adult (or at least, an adult with an adult’s reading age).

  14. Thanks, all, for comments. It’s interesting, and I am sure informative, to see the stark difference between the responses to this post and the Dune — we have something very close to unanimity that Dune is worth the effort and the Belgariad is not. So I won’t even try with this one, satisfying myself with having had an enjoyable snark about it on the blog. I will return to Dune, probably when I’ve finished reading Timothy Zahn’s Heir to Empire.

  15. WyrdestGeek

    Mike: Perhaps what it comes down to is that, while the Belgariad thingie might have a lot of fans, it still does not have anywhere near the number of fans that Dune has. Or it could be that your readers are biased in favor of sci fi.

    Anyway, I’ve experienced the same situation as you (a set of friends really loves some fantasy book series, but I can’t stand it) and I have a theory about that, and some related stuff: What age were your friends when they first started this book series? I’ll wager most of them were pretty young. We all have certain shows, stories and/or games that we fell in love with when we were young. Most times, we still love them as adults even though, in the full light of adulthood, we can see them for the shoddily constructed knock-offs they often turn out to be.

    Remember Sturgen’s law about how 90% of everything is crud. Well, so how could all this crud possibly stay in circulation? Well that’s because when we’re young and naive we can’t tell the difference. :-) Also, every recycled story is new to someone somewhere at sometime. So your friends probably got a hold of Belgariad before they’d even heard of Tolkien or seen Star Wars. Almost every story with action and adventure is a retelling or variation of the Hero’s Quest Cycle: http://www.questcycles.com/hqcycle.html


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  16. I think the Belgariad may well be for younger folk. I admit I enjoyed re(re)reading it, but it may be more nostalgia than anything else. I think Eddings’ other series – “The Golden Throne” is the first – about a knight named Sparhawk is much more interesting. It has some of the same stuff, but for whatever reason I find it much more re(re)readable.

  17. I have to concur with everyone. Enjoyed it when I was 12, a long time ago (still in this galaxy though). Tried to re-read it a few years ago– it is poor prose all the way through, cliched, hackneyed, and all.

    On the other hand, if you were to stick with Dune (in a paper copy) and work through the glossary as you become situated, you will end up reading a really fine piece of literature. There is a reason it was the first novel to win both the Hugo and the Nebula awards (ok, it was the first year of the Nebulas ever I concede!), and it remains better than most all of the other individual or co-winners since.

  18. I want to defend the Thomas Covenant books from being labelled as ‘Bad Epic Fantasy’. They’re not in that category at all. The characters and themes in the books are complex, multi-layered and thought-provoking (such as how the state of The Land reflects the character’s internal struggles). I admit that Donaldson is rather fond of the theasaurus, but using unusual words doesn’t make a book bad if the plot, characters and themes are well thought out. Incidentally, the recent batch of Thomas Covenant chronicles avoids this use obscure words.

  19. Tagore Smith

    I’m also in the “liked it when I was 12” camp. Even then I knew the books weren’t very good. They are not, perhaps, quite as bad as the blurb would make them seem. They have their moments. But they are that bad in more places than they’re not, IMHO.

    I wonder if you’ve read Lloyd Alexander’s Taran books? For some reason they always reminded me a bit of the Belgariad. This might be because at 12 I was very interested in the relationships between the male protagonists and their love interests, and because Eilonwy and Ce’Nedra have at least similar coloring, IIRC, and a similar push/pull dynamic with their respective protagonists.

    The Taran series is more overtly juvenile fantasy than the Belgariad, though less juvenile in fact, I think- there’s a sniggering quality to the Belgariad I don’t much like (I would say the same thing, more strongly, about Jordan,) and which is wholly absent from the Taran series. But I think it is very well done juvenile fantasy. I reread the books about 10 years ago, and I remember enjoying them.

    I do think Covenant is bad epic fantasy, but it as least audacious bad epic fantasy. That’s another one I read at 12 or so. There are some really good things in those books, but Donaldson’s faults as a writer are so many, and so great, that they overshadow the good bits, IMHO. He did increase my vocabulary, though I’m not sure he improved it ;).

  20. ” “Gods” gets a capital despite the universal convention that only a single God gets the capital, and plural gods don’t”

    Really? I wasn’t aware of this convention; as far as I knew “god” was a noun and, as such, doesn’t get capitalised at all, thus:

    “The gods Thor, Loki and Odin all feature in the new Marvel film, Thor, but the main focus of the story is on the thunder god, Thor.”

    As far as I know the only time the word gets capitalised is when it is used to denote the Christian god because there it is being used as a place holder for the actual proper noun which is not supposed to be used.

  21. AJWSmith, actually I sort of agree on Covenant — I described it half-heartedly as Bad Epic Fantasy mostly to avoid people saying “How can you diss Eddings when you like Donaldson”? But there is no doubt that, for all the helf and substance of The Land, Donaldson has a truly horrible weakness for certain obscure words which crop up again and again.

    Back in ’89 when I was at Warwick University, I and a few of my friends used to remember the set of command-line options supported by the grep implementation in SunOS 4.1.1 (-b, -c, -h, -i, -l, -n, -s, -v) using the Donadsonesque mnemonic: [The cheese factory] Beneath Covenant Hung Insubstantial, Lambent Nacreous Sepulchral Vitriol. In retrospect, the C should have been made to stand for cynosure.

    For a long while, I had a random signature-quote generator invoked from Emacs, which I used for email among other things. (I have since switched to Gmail). One of the quotes in the database was:

    “Covenant strode pustulatingly across the gibbous room, the preternatural sun playing lambently across his gloaming features” — Steven Donaldson, Lord Lambent’s Bane

  22. He did increase my vocabulary, though I’m not sure he improved it.

    LOL!

  23. Mike and friends,

    What is the opinion on Lord of the Rings (the books.)?

    There was the postings about The Silmarillion a few months back which I enjoyed (the blog posts.. I always got bogged down in The Sil but I do mean to have another go at it :) (I really like the first couple parts, the shorter parts – Song of iluvitar or whatever.)

    I read LotR a few times when young (skipping over the songs and ‘slow parts’, kids don’t appreciate texture ;), and have often browsed through it later in life. I’ve got Unfinished Tales and so on, but mostly browsed and not digested.

    With family and work its hard to plow into such a lengthy topic, and I find it a path that seems too familiar at the beginning; like watching Monty Python sketches that you’ve not seen in years.. you watched them so many times so long ago, that years later you still remember all the jokes just before they land, so its not so fun to watch; with LotR movies and cartoons and general browsing, that first patch throug hHibbiton and the Nazgul .. not sure I can take it anymore :)

    But I am thinking of commiting to plowing through it, starting maybe part way into the first vbolume (or from the beginning, just yto drink in all the details.)

    Got twins coming in 6 weeks.. do I try and get through it all before they arrive? :)

    jeff

  24. @Mike I’m looking forward to reading those Wheel of Time reviews when I get a chance. I know some (most?) of the later volumes are not as strong as the first 4-5, and one of them (I cannot recall offhand) was decidedly weak.

    But I still reckon dismissing the series outright is probably a mistake.

    Have you tried reading it yourself, or are you purely going on those reviews? Once I’ve read the reviews myself, I might see if a counter-balancing point of view is warranted. ;)

  25. You do realize that it’s not the author that writes the blurbs right? Do give The Belgariad a shot. It’s well worth your time.

  26. Tagore Smith

    Jerry: I doubt Mike will ever give you the satisfaction, so here I go:

    The first Jordan book is entertaining, in the sense that a precis of an inventive D&D campaign is entertaining, but longer. I played a lot of D&D once so I am a sucker for that sort of thing, and the first book in Jordan’s series is OK, on that level.

    The second book seemed aimless to me, and very long, but I was bored. So I kept going.

    I didn’t read all the books that had been published at the time, but I read more than I am proud to admit. My review of the series is that nothing of any real importance happens for a long time, but a lot of people get spanked, or are threatened with a solid spanking. At one point a few of the protagonists (and there are too many protagonists in these books to keep track of, particularly since they mostly differ from each other in sex, hairstyle, and how they like to be spanked/spank) capture one of the Prime Evils of Jordan’s world. They proceed to spank her, and occasionally threaten to spank her, for several thousand pages. If I didn’t know better I would think these books were written in an English public school, and passed around at bedtime.

    Say what you will about Tolkien, there is no spanking scene between Frodo and the Witch-King of Angmar.,

  27. Marco points out:

    You do realize that it’s not the author that writes the blurbs right?

    Yes, Marco, I do realise. I know it’s subtle, but I left a clue to that effect in the original article when I wrote:

    “But Mike!”, you cry, “It’s terribly silly of you to dismiss a book on the strength of the back-cover blurb, which is not even written by the author.” I can’t deny it. So let’s turn to the prologue, which is the work of Eddings himself.

  28. Jerry, I have not read any of Wot myself, and I have to say that if I did I wouldn’t expect to enjoy them anywhere near as much as a I enjoyed Roberts’ reviews of them. So, sorry, I am going to stick with the “dismissing the series outright” strategy.

    Jeff, the Lord of the Rings is fully deserving its iconic status, and I definitely recommend ploughing right in. The more I have read it, the richer I have found it to be. I do know what you mean about the first sections seeming over-familiar; maybe pick up at the start of Book II (i.e. half way through Fellowship of the Ring, when they have just arrived at Rivendell)? The depth of Tolkein’s world really does show up his imitators for the shallow wannabes that they are. Not to say there is nothing of value in the derivative works (I’ve already admitted to liking the Thomas Covenant books a lot), but the original really is the best by a long, long way.

  29. @Mike: that’s a perfectly valid choice. And you can safely skip the rest of this comment as irrelevant to you personally. (not trying to convince anyone, but I do feel the need to express my personal viewpoint)

    I had a very long comment written up just before Chrome decided to swallow it… I may decide to blog about my agreements and disagreements with the reviews that you linked to in some more detail on my blog at a later date.

    I did enjoy the reviews… there’s a lot of merit to some of his points (more so in the earlier reviews than the later ones… by the fourth one he seems to be resenting his personal quest so much that his reviews descend into caricature) and a lot of it is funny to boot. I wish some aspects of the series were different too, but that doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the work as it stands.

    I do however believe that he has missed a lot of depth and detail, and I can only assume this is a product of his desire to read the series just because he feels he should, and doing so at a page-blurring pace.

    A firework-related incident in book 2 which he puts down as needless flash is actually a set-up to an important encounter in book 5 (and I think book 3, but my memory is a bit hazy). Quite a few plot elements span books like this.

    He considers the evil rather two-dimensional, but I think he may have been distracted by the “trollocs” and “myrddraal” which were purpose-built by the “dark one” to be two-dimensional tools to his will. He seems to completely overlook the 13 “forsaken” who were mere mortals before they turned to the dark. Each of these has their own personal motivations and perversions causing various in-fighting and double-crossing. (Although I readily admit a couple of them are probably fairly two-dimensional by design too… I’m sure we all know real-life 2D people).

    I personally enjoy this series every time I re-read it for reasons he doesn’t even touch on (perhaps because he didn’t notice in his haste). The sheer number of moving parts that interact intricately and logically throughout the series is amazing. Most events are described through the viewpoints of various characters, each with their own unique (and flawed) knowledge and interpretation of the same situation. Battles are won and lost over variously imperfect knowledge informing decisions. And a lot of the wordiness the reviewer decries goes towards building a cohesive and consistent context within which this imperfect knowledge propels the protagonists and antagonists towards unavoidable conclusions. It does occasionally take a fair bit of concentration to keep this all straight while reading.

    RJs writing is definitely not perfect. But it is much more involved and enjoyable than can be gleaned from just those reviews.

  30. Konrad Garus

    Yeah, I read it in high school as well. And donated all 10 books to a library as soon as I finished.

    How about something more mature and anti-cliche like Steven Erickson or Glen Cook’s “Black Company”? Both are classic, but easier than Dune and nowhere near as trivial as Endings.

  31. Thanks, Jerry, for an interesting alternative view on WoT. As you guessed, I am not persuaded sufficiently to embark on the epic task of actually reading them, but I am glad they work for you. From the perspective of an outsider, Roberts’ later reviews are maybe even funnier than the early ones, but I can see your point about them being increasingly about his own frustration rather than about the books.

  32. @Mike: I can’t blame you; 14 books of that size (I’m counting the final as-yet unpublished volume) is a serious investment of time. And if I am totally honest, not one I can be sure I would start today myself with all other demands on my time.

    Having said that, the HBO rendition of “Song of Ice and Fire” (“Game of Thrones”) has actually coaxed me into buying that series recently… now I’m just waiting for a sufficiently empty weekend to make a solid start on the first volume. I sincerely hope RR Martin actually wraps up in two more books…

  33. I’m a bit late hopping in here, but I would encourage you to read the Belgariad. It’s not great art, but it is a fun read, and I think it’s one of the best of the LotR clones with the ‘boy discovers he has powers’ ilk. The prologue is horribly stilted, and it won’t make much sense at this stage, but the main text flows nicely. Plus it has actually ended! The Mallorean’s not worth much though.
    I’m actually on hiatus from Game of Thrones right now… got through the first two, and liked them, but then felt I needed a break which is one of the first times that has happened.

  34. I’ll throw in my two cents… I’ve read both series (Dune and the Belgariad) and I have to say, Dune sticks with me more. It’s an amazing, fascinating series and I’m sorry it took me as long as it did to get around to reading it. Te Belgariad just isn’t that memorable. Maybe it was a bit too campy in places.

    Besides, the later books in the Dune series are simply mind-blowing. Wow.

  35. The Wheel Of Time? What a load of trollocs. Sorry, couldn’t resist. One hopes George RR Martin learned a lesson from what happened to Jordan (ie he dragged out his story over a ludicrous number of books in which certain things happened over and over again in various permutations without apparently getting closer to the end, then dropped dead before finishing it) and that the fruits of his labour and the adoration of his fans (as well as the money and attention) don’t distort the art or draw the story out even more. You can only have so many “shocks” and reversals before it becomes tiresome business as usual and I fear the Big Bearded One may have passed that point.

  36. I agree with everything you have said…except you opinion of LOTR. Character development is nil, loads of extraneous information which adds nothing to the story and the prose is painfully dry. The only reason the movies were any good is directly due to the fact that Jackson developed story elements and relationships that were either under developed or ignored totally in the novels. Also, he cut out all the extraneous tripe that littered the novels.

  37. “… loads of extraneous information which adds nothing to the story …”

    That’s true, but only if you think “story” is limited to “the sequence of events that happen”. The great appeal of Lord of the Ringsand even more so The Silmarillion — lies in a very different direction: with story as a screen on which to project cultures and histories. People who don’t like that kind of thing will indeed find Tolkien hard going.

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