I remember exactly when I read this book for the first time. And indeed where. It was lying on my stomach on one of the two single beds in ‘my’ room in my grandmother’s house (the bed nearest the window, the room at the end of the corridor), and it took me I think two, maybe three days in summer, most likely in early August. It was very hot, I had the metalic Venetian blinds closed to keep out the sun, and I had to periodically sojourn outside in the brightness and spend time with my family, who were mostly sitting out on the top garden (in white plastic chairs, or else on the concrete-and-quintuply-painted-wood bench by the wall there), or else I should have gotten through it much faster. [Actually, I did: when I say ‘this book’, I was actually reading the omnibus edition, so I got through this first installment in less than an afternoon.] I may also have spent some time drawing overly complicated mazes on thick orange card-paper for my mother to solve, but maybe that’s another summer I’m thinking of there. The omnibus edition I had is itself almost an artefact now – shoddily constructed, the covers lined over with creases, corners missing, but mummified after death in a protective plastic laminate (including the bottom right corner of the front cover, which was lost entirely, and now exist only in the spectral form of the fastidiously rectangular lamination, which made no concession to the fact the cover itself no longer actually reached that extremity).
As I think I’ve said before on this blog, Eddings was the author who got me into fantasy. Tolkien, of course, I loved with a passion, but that made safe nothing: it’s easy to love one author. What would I read next? Would I be a fantasy reader, or just a Tolkien reader? My parents (with no knowledge of the contents) bought me three books as possible new authors to try out: Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Robert N Charrette’s Shadowrun novel, Never Deal With A Dragon (yeah, they seriously had no knowledge of the contents…), and Eddings’ Pawn of Prophecy. Later, this would be my least-favourite of the three, but at the time, that was the one that hooked me. And ten novels later, in early August, when I was (by my calculations) eight years old, I read The Elenium for the first time.
All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that maybe I can’t approach this book in quite the same way that I approach others. It’s not a book like Tolkien’s books, which I can’t honestly approach with any critical sentiment at all, but it’s a book I can’t really be impartial with.
And that’s why I was able to read it. Because if I’d just picked this up as a novel by some author I’d never heard of, I’d have put it down shortly afterward and never picked it up again. It’s only the concentrated power of twenty years of nostalgia that forced me to finish this book.
Why? Well, it’s got some problems. It’s got almost too many problems to really pick them out at all. But fundamentally they boil down to one simple difficulty: Eddings can’t write.
Now, this isn’t the worst-written book I’ve read. No, not at all. I’ve read far worse than this. But all the time, the author seems to be butting up against the limitations of his own ability. The dialogue is not just boring, and sometimes stilted, but also horrendously repetitive. Descriptive scenes are no better – at his best, Eddings can reach the level of workmanlike, and he doesn’t always hit that bar. Oh, put beside some of the bilgewater that was being put out in Dragonlance novels and the like at the time, this is really solid stuff, but by the standards of anything outside of ‘80s/’90s fantasy, it would be lucky to be called mediocre (which may be why the author’s earlier forays into authordom, outside of epic fantasy, were dismal failures). His attempts at mock-Tolkienian grandeur are even worse (though, again, a notch above many of his rivals, it must be said), and fortunately are restricted to the prologue. His characterisation is poor, all individuals instantly resolving into simple tropes, usually based on ethnicity or profession, and many background characters are more or less interchangeable (a tendency that the earlier Mallorean novels actually explicitly lampshade, with the characters developing a metaphysical theory about why they keep seeming to bump into people who seem exactly like other people they already met).
And yet… let’s look at this from the other side.
If you’re a fantasy fan, David Eddings is a massive deal – even if you’ve never read him. He’s not just the guy who got me into fantasy, he’s not just been the ‘gateway drug’ into fantasy for a generation of readers apart from myself, he’s also one of the men with the strongest claim to have created the modern fantasy genre. Before Martin, before Jordan, there was Eddings, bestriding the 1980’s, helping to take a genre of literary oddities and the very occasional cult hit and thrust it into… well, not the mainstream exactly, but enough of a mainstream that his successors could start to hit bestseller lists. He wasn’t alone, of course – Terry Brooks preceded him, and the D&D novels multiplied in their shadow – but he’s a seminal figure nonetheless. And one of the refreshing things about him was his lack of pretense: he said outright that he went into fantasy because he saw how well Tolkien was still selling and he wanted to cash in. He crafted his books from recycled mythic elements as (and again, his metaphor) a form of dope to hook young readers, so that he could get piles of cash from them. And boy was that succesful. Five Belgariad novels were followed by five Mallorean novels, and Eddings sold millions of them (in a much, much smaller market for epic fantasy than exists today), ending his Mallorean novels with a #1 New York Times Bestseller (1991’s The Seeress of Kell was only the third epic fantasy to make #1, after Tolkien’s The Silmarillion in ’77 and King’s The Eyes of the Dragon in ’87; no other epic would make #1 until 1998; the only other epic authors to make #1 have been Martin (starting ’05), Goodkind (starting ’06) and Sanderson (starting ‘o9, and then only for his continuation of Jordan’s series)). Eddings was undoubtedly The Man, and there was seemingly no end in sight to how much the overtly mercantile author could rake in churning out these unabashedly repetitive novels.
Which is why I don’t think he gets anywhere near the amount of credit he deserves for The Diamond Throne. Because, leaving aside our preconceptions, The Diamond Throne… isn’t more of the same. It’s something really, really different. Or, at least, it tries to be.
Where the earlier series were fundamentally simple, basic travellogue quest narratives with the occasional war in the background, The Elenium is more complicated – yes, there is a meandering quest element, but the political machinations are thrust far more into the foreground, and in particular there is much less clarity about what’s actually going on – the characters just stumble around, with the layers of conspiracy resting in the shadows, at least for now. The earlier novels revolved around a simple, approachable everyman, a literal farm-boy, but these novels have as their protagonist an unlikeable, violent, scarred knight templar with a strong streak of spaghetti western to him and apparently some PTSD on the side. In the first five pages, Our Hero (Sir Sparhawk) is solicited by prostitutes, threatened by footpads (whom he scares off), has attempted to murder a man in cold blood, has threatened to murder two more people, and has afflicted a man with supernatural boils because he was rude and had an effeminate voice.
And then in the first few chapters alone, we get nymphomaniacs, more prostitutes, ethno-religious pogroms, incest, pederasty, a ‘fountain of blood’, discussions of gang-rape and mass slaughter, abominations from beyond the world, Elder Gods, and a whole lot of killing. Later there will be (albeit off-screen) unspeakable blood-orgies.
Oh, I loved these books when I was eight. Come to think of it, this may explain quite a lot…
The Elenium is, like so much fantasy, set in faux-mediaeval faux-Europe; unusually, however, it makes a little more effort than normal to take on the complexity and darkness of that setting (most obviously, it’s a very religious setting, with most of the characters being either priests or ‘church knights’). There’s a strong feeling of noir at times – many of the opening chapters lean heavily on people in shadows in alleyways at twilight in the heavy rain. It’s hammered home to us that even if Our Heroes may eventually succeed (although, and this isn’t really a spoiler, there’s not much success in this book – this isn’t one of those serials where each book is its own adventure, this is very much the first part of a trilogy with a single overarching plot), this will only come at the cost of a great deal of tragedy. Yes, there are glimmers and glimpses of themes, characters, tropes, even lines of dialogue that are familiar from the earlier novels, but now they’re cast into a fresh and darker light.
So I really want to praise Eddings for even trying to write this book. Given the position he was in when he wrote it, he could easily have been forgiven for giving his audience more of what they wanted, and making a lot more money in the process. But he didn’t. Sure, his earlier books were never quite as tame as people remember them – there was a fair amount of crazed blood-fountaining there too, and even a little sexual content if you read between the lines – but he really did take his readers to a very different world when he wrote this book. And because his readers were a sizeable percantage of the entire Epic Fantasy genre at the time, that’s actually a pretty big deal. Now of course, he wasn’t forging a new path. Grittier fantasy had been tried before, most notably by Glen Cooke, and, at least in the UK, David Gemmell had carved (no pun intended) out a niche in a sexier, bloodier vein, albeit in a style even less realist than Eddings. But modern ‘grimdark’ tendencies were a long way in the future, and this turn toward a grimier, less pleasant, more horror-tinted, and, yes, considerably more ‘realistic’ style of setting would have been a big risk, and a big surprise, for such a mainstream, YA-focused popular author as Eddings. So while perhaps he cannot be credited for any great innovations, I do think that part of how we remember Eddings should be as a man who, in his own exploratory way, helped popularise tendencies in the genre that would later become widespread, even dominant.
It wasn’t a great commercial decision at the time, though. I gather that sales for The Elenium, and the Tamuli trilogy that followed, were only something like a quarter of sales for his previous two, more accessible, less challenging, series. My recollection – and to be fair this was a long time ago and I might easily be wrong – is that the Tamuli somewhat rowed back tonally from the darkness of the Elenium; in any case, with that out of the way Eddings returned to his original setting with two hefty prequel novels to the Belgariad, before turning to a new series that by all accounts was largely autoderivative. Still, it was fun while it lasted.
[While I remember, a note on the authorship. For those prequel novels, and the final novels that followed, the name on the cover is ‘David and Leigh Eddings’. David’s wife Leigh had apparently been a major influence on all the earlier novels, and, having found a certain level of fame and success, David decided that Leigh’s name decided to be on the covers. However, I don’t personally know to what extent Leigh was an active co-author of the Elenium, and the change in authorship assignment did not extend to changing the name on new editions of the earlier books. And of course, almost all authors have people around them without whom their books could not be written. So I’m just talking about ‘Eddings’ here, and remaining agnostic on whether the author is one man or one man and his wife – no slight or offence is intended by this.]
And yet that’s not where my sympathies for Eddings end. This isn’t just a vaguely-conceptually-interesting (at the time, at least) book that just happens to be terrible throughout in execution. There are real virtues to this novel.
First, when the tone works, it works well. In its better moment, it’s a broodily atmospheric, sombre and yet violent book, which, while maybe not winning any awards for photorealism, nonetheless does have more of a sense of place, and time, and humanity, and soul, than some of its blythely brutal successors. Second, there’s a whole lot of good ideas packed in here, from little images up through to world-building concepts (I particularly like the under-explored magic system, which symbolically presents itself as the complete opposite of the system of Eddings’ earlier two series – there, magic was simply a matter of willpower and imagination, making the magic-user a free and independent agent, whereas here, magic is no more than ritual prayer to capricious and poorly-understood gods, leaving the magic-user entirely at the mercy of super-human beings). And, third, there’s actually a pretty good, and a pretty complicated, plot. I’ll be honest here and make a confession: badly written though this may be, and although I could easily have given up in the first few chapters… by the time I was nearing the end, I was actually kind of hooked on the plot. It’s not a terribly innovative or memorable plot, but it’s a story that I found I wanted to hear more of. And for a fourth point, Eddings is surprisingly willing to be interesting in this book – as in, for instance, a couple of scenes where he gives us little red herrings showing his characters making stupid mistakes, undermining his own narrative decisions. Not a literary revolution, by any means, but I did find myself going ‘oh! huh! that’s… unusual?’.
So why do these virtues not outweigh the (let’s face it, hardly unique) weaknesses of the prose?
Well, I think the most important factor is space. The Diamond Throne is a wonderful example of why doorstopper epic fantasy sagas were invented. Eddings gets three books to tell this story, and about 1300 pages in total. That’s about two volumes of Robert Jordan, and The Wheel of Time is 14 volumes long. The problem is, The Diamond Throne alone probably has more plot than any two, and maybe even three, installments of The Wheel of Time. Those fed up with reading Jordan, or Martin, may well complain about the problems of massive wordcounts, but Eddings really shows us the problems of a lack of wordcount. This book is definitely at its best when it has time on its side, when it can take the space to lay out an atmospheric scene, give us a character moment, let a plot beat breathe, give us a look at how things look when the plot isn’t smashing through like a hurricane – the most memorable moments, in my opinion, are probably Sparhawk’s slow, traumatised flashbacks to a near-death experience in a desert city. But these moments are few and far between. By and large, everything has to be done in fast forward. No sooner has a plot complication been introduced than it’s been resolved. Characters have to be repetitive caricatures because they have so few lines in which to be introduced and categorised in terms of relevance to the plot. Conversations almost always have to pierce to the heart of the matter with little beating about the bush, because come on guys we’re on a schedule here. Characters have to be so stupid that the author has to explicitly lampshade how unbelievable and out of character their stupidity is, because we just don’t have time to, say, lay out a more convincing argument or construct a more elaborate deception. Eddings is setting out to tell a really epic story, but either because of publisher resistance or his own failure to change his style to match the changes in his content, he has to squeeze it into covers several sizes too small. It’s rare and strange to find a book badly written, find it difficult to get through in places, and yet want more of it… and yet I do think that these characters, and even this plot, could make for a really good book if only we got to take it all far more slowly. It’s hard to be epic in a hurry, and it’s even harder to be atmospheric and disconcerting in a hurry. These problems are really obvious early on, when the combination of time constraints and Eddings’ ‘professional’ approach make it really blindingly unsubtle when he’s infodumping, foreshadowing, and setting up the basic plot. It feels, early on, like a fantasy novel written line-by-line in obedience to Ikea instructions – on the one hand, he does the right things, but on the other he does them so mechanically and obviously that it’s hard to be entranced.
A second problem – and here we do see Eddings’ limitation as a craftsman – is the author’s inability or unwillingness to fully commit to his premise. His earlier series, notwithstanding some dark moments, were basically fun-filled romps for all the family, where characters rarely felt threatened and everyone was perpetually laughing and joking; unfortunately, despite the change in atmosphere, Eddings can’t quite rid himself of that style. There’s a great deal of (totally un-witty) witty repartee, continuous and unabashed literal and metaphorical backslapping between the characters, and a general and suffusive air of really, really irritating smugness about Our Heroes. Although Eddings tries to present serious threats for the characters and their loved ones, he continually undermines himself through this smugness – for much of the novel, it’s hard to imagine bad things happening, because the heroes are so obviously in complete and total control of everything – every possible obstacle is overcome within moments, followed by a round of congratulations and praise, so that there are only ever brief moments where we can really persuade ourselves that future obstacles will prove any more threatening once we get around to dealing with them. This could be played for ironic tension, the blasé attitude of the protagonists heightening the fear we feel when we see the threats arrayed against them – but, other than as I’ve said a few moments here and there, this just isn’t how it works, in part I think because so much of the story is from the viewpoint of these characters (so we can’t easily step outside their perspectives to criticise them) but mostly just because this mannerism is just so flagrant and unbridled. Similarly, the darker moments in the world we see, whether that’s the fantastical darkness of malevolant inhuman forces or the real darkness of, for instance, tired old prostitutes desparate for a drink, are undermined by this irrepressable lightness of the narrative. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing in theory wrong with a light and carefree story of the heroes always winning and then cracking jokes about it (though with Eddings at the helm, the execution of that is always likely to be annoying). But that approach just doesn’t marry well with the darkness and grittiness of the setting and the plot – and nor does Eddings have the skill to exploit that tonal dissonance intentionally. We should be honest here: in some ways, this weird disharmony of style and content probably was good for the book. It probably helped it get published, and probably helped it get read, in a genre environment where the mass market just wasn’t ready for all-out grimdark. The lightness of style probably makes the darkness of content much easier to swallow, and it would have been a difficult endeavour in its own right to write this book with an appropriately grave voice without making it either boring or depressing. And in particular, this approach does probably make the book more appealing to a younger audience. As I said above, I loved these books when I was eight, and probably a part of that was that I could feel a little frightened here, a little confused there, a little red-faced now and then, and with all the time the feeling that this was more important and more adult and more sophisticated than what other people were reading around me, and yet at the same time I could feel safe in that warm, friendly, fundamentally unthreatening narrative environment. So some of the things that make Eddings not a great author are also maybe some of the things that make him an enjoyable ‘YA’ author; he is, as it were, an author who fails safe.
And yet maybe these are the lesser problems. They’re the problems you’d point out to explain what Eddings is doing wrong – they are, as it were, the formal problems, and while they certainly impede the enjoyment of the book, they probably are the lesser evil in terms of damaging my memory of the novel after I’ve read it.
Because in many ways this isn’t a nice book. Let’s put it like this: some people criticise Fantasy as an inherently arch-conservative, even fascistic, genre. And when they say that, they’re thinking of books like this.
The Diamond Throne is not overtly sexist, although sexist undertones could certainly be found by those who wanted to find them: I was a little nervous, for instance, about the seeming equation of female sexuality with evil in the case of one woman, although this theme is not really followed through and there are partial counter-examples, so I may be being oversensitive here; I was also a little unsure about the way that pretty young prostitutes in cheap brothels adore their work. I suppose I had the same problem in both cases: yes, slutty women can be bad people, and yes, some prostitutes in the real world do actually find their work not just tolerable but positively enjoyable, and both of those character tropes can legitimately be used in fiction (nothing in reality can be prohibited in art); and yet I really just don’t trust Eddings not to be using these tropes in either a misogynistic or a lazily exploitative way (despite the fact that the book was probably at least partially co-authored by a woman).
And a big part of why I don’t trust him on the possible latent sexism is because of the active and overt racism. I like to defend authors when people accuse them of racism. That’s just who I am – if I were a lawyer, I’d be a defence lawyer. Everybody deserves a fair trial. And I’m genuinely not convinced that Eddings himself was a racist man – I think laziness and simplicity and a misguided borrowing from existing tropes are at least as much to blame as personal prejudice. But I really can’t defend the book – the book is racist.
I’ve already said that there’s a continual tendency to define characters through their ethnicity. Sometimes this is overt, explaining things away on grounds of race, while other times it is implicit, patterns of similarity between people of the same ethnicity that seem to go beyond what cultural trends can really justify. This isn’t even as defensible as in his previous series, where at leas there was some in-world justification for race-based personalities – in the Belgariad and Mallorean, races were created and shaped and guided by particular deities, who stamped their own features onto their followers in a way that implausibly but at least explicably created a weird hodgepodge of incompatible societies. Here, the races are all far closer and more similar in material and intellectual culture, with less divine intervention (or at least less obvious intervention), which only serves to highlight the strange importance of race. And it doesn’t stop at authorial shortcuts – characters repeatedly make racist remarks. To some extent this could be written off as the shortcomings of the characters, but there really doesn’t seem to be the complexity or self-awareness that could justify that. Indeed, at times Eddings seems to go out of his way to make the racism clear. There’s one particularly noxious passage, for instance, where, for no plot-vital reason, we get a little lecture on how miscegenation is evil: any interbreeding between races is “an abomination”. Now, true, this is coming from the characters, not the narrator. But Eddings puts that in the mouth of the ‘wisest’ and most knowledgeable and probably most likeable character, doubles down on it by having another wise and knowledgeable and likeable character from an entirely different background (who usually disagrees with the first character) agree wholeheartedly, and then triples and quadruples down on it by having both characters explain that their anti-miscegenation views are known infallibly through direct divine revelation. There’s no hint that I can find of any irony here, of any suggestion that we should be questioning the characters when they tell us this. And it’s very uncomfortable.
I should probably say, even though it’s not from this book and I try to limit my reviews to one book at a time, that as I recall there are a number of miscegenatory pairings presented in positive or neutral lights in later books, so that I don’t think that this was really a core belief that Eddings himself held as a man. Yet even then, these later pairings are not, as far as I can remember, presented in a way that challenges these early conclusions, by presenting them either as rebuttals or as exceptions. My impression is that Eddings just naturally assumes that (at least in his world) inter-race marriages must be evil (probably just because it makes his job easier by letting him continue his racial-essentialist approach to characterisation), until he happens across some specific plot reason why he wants a particular pairing to happen, at which point the assumption against is quietly dropped. Or, I don’t know, maybe he realised he’d gone too far. Or perhaps he is playing a subtler game, and we’re meant to see these characters as all being bigots – but if that’s his intention, I don’t think he’s got the skill to carry it off, because I usually give authors as much benefit of the doubt as I can, and couldn’t find anything here.
But the worst part of all is the treatment of the Rendors, the desert-dwelling heretics. These people, we are told, are just stupid. I mean, really stupid. They can’t keep more than one thought in their head. They’re idiots. They need to be mocked on all occasions. And it’s not just the racism of the characters, because we meet a whole bunch of them, and yes, they’re all really stupid. [Well, with one exception – there’s a highly promiscuous female Rendor who seems of average intelligence, if you can overlook the tendency to hysteria and deceitfulness (yeah, this is another of those moments that could possibly be excused if you trusted the author, because, hey, women like this do exist, but that otherwise will feel a little uncomfortable on the sexism front, given how cliché this type of woman is). But who knows, maybe she’s only half-Rendor or something].
Oh, and did I mention that they’re Muslims? I don’t know if this was intentional. Maybe i’m just hypersensitive now – after all, this was written in the early ‘90s, so Islamophobia is maybe less likely than in a contemporary novel, but that really is how it felt – it’s this horribly caricatured portrait of religious-fundamentalist desert-dwellers (including camel-nomads in the desert itself) in flowing robes and veils and white houses in the continent to the south of the mainland, with a history of religious wars against the European Elene population – hell, the knight templar analogues were founded (iirc?) in the crusades against these heretics. But the thing is, it’s one thing to have an obvious arab/muslim analogue to go with the obvious european/catholic analogue, but it feels really uncomfortable to then make those faux-arabs genetically moronic, not to mention more or less flat-out evil and primitive. It’s not even as though there’s any sympathy toward them for their stupidity-affliction – it’s played for laughs. Again, I don’t know if this is real Islamophobia or just (as I suspect) utterly crass and lazy plot-driven unfortunateness, but I really didn’t like it.
And the conservativism doesn’t stop there. There is a really unforgiving hard-right law-and-order vibe here. Well, not ‘law and order’ exactly, because Eddings likes loveable thieves and rogues. The laws, after all, don’t really apply to superior people. But it’s made clear that discipline is a matter of violence: if a pre-teen child says something cheeky, the only possible acceptable response is to beat it thoroughly. And the child will welcome this, of course, and respect you all the more, because it’s the way it should be. And this approach to child-rearing is reflected in inter-personal relationships between adults: our heroes are the heroes because they’ve got the strength and the callousness to kill, beat up or humiliate everybody else. This isn’t presented in a gritty ends-justify-the-means way, but just as a loveable and admirable character trait. The protagonist is explicitly and affectionately described by others as an irredeemable bully, and the whole book is fundamentally a series of problems where weak untermenschen put problems in front of the protagonist that are resolved by bullying people.
This is, to be fair, mostly quite enjoyable. Let’s be honest, there’s something really satisfying about seeing some irritating creep forced to back down by threat to disembowl him – Sparhawk may not be perfect, but he’s clearly on the right side compared to the villains, and it’s fun to watch him kick ass. And, as part of this dark/light fencesitting thing, his bark turns out to mostly be much worse than his bite, so we don’t have to feel too bad about it. It’s just that putting everything together there’s a bit of a sour taste of conservative thuggery about it all. Eddings could really have improved things considerably by adding at least an element of doubt or complexity, rather than wholeheartedly endorsing this behaviour (there are gestures at criticism, but they’re presented more for comic effect than serious moral ambiguity).
Finally, all this goes along with a thoroughly conservative, even aristocratic, approach to class. In general, only the aristocracy are valuable human beings – the commoners are braindead morons and the jumped-up moneyed classes are despicable. There are a few counterexamples, with loveable rogues and sturdy working-class men who know their place, and even a likeable merchant, but there is very much a feeling that these are exceptional, diamonds in the rough – you have to almost be a super-man just to be worth talking to, if you’re not born an aristocrat. Indeed, at one point one character (a Styric, a member of the Jew-analogue mysterious cryptic practitioners of dark magic who mostly live in the woods as semi-bestial primitives and get periodically slaughtered by the Christian Elenic peasantry, although Our Heroes are very fond of them as they’re the only people who can teach anyone magic, and this Styric in particular is clear a Hero) says explicitly (and the author does not seem to be undermining them) that there’s basically no fate in the world worse than having to talk to a common person, of any race. Most of humanity is basically vermin, albeit our vermin who we ought to protect from enemy vermin.
[Talking about Styrics: the fact that Jews Styrics are congenitally stupid (or pathologically ‘unsophisticated’, at least, unable to conceive of complicated thoughts) is actually a major plot point.]
I don’t want to go on too much about this. Most of the time, this doesn’t read like a right-wing screed, and these books are probably not, by themselves, a threat to children. Hell, I read this and similar books at a formative age, and they never made me right-wing – if anything, I think I took more from the iconoclasm of the books than from their essentialism. It’s just that the story, the world, doesn’t really make sense unless you adopt this simplistic, essentialist, might-is-right worldview, and as an adult I find this… not even offensive, per se (it’s not presented aggressively, it’s probably not aimed at anyone in the real world, and it’s more the product of laziness than of ideology, I think), but just really irritating. It leaves a sour taste.
…So there it is. If this were a film, it would be crying out for a remake – if you’re willing to put the effort in, there’s actually a lot here that’s worth reading. It’s just badly executed, and sprinkled with objectionable themes. Some of these problems are due to the limitations of the author; others should probably be seen in the mitigating light of the era in which the book was written. Kudos should be given to the author for even trying to write this book, given that it was clearly going to stretch his abilities, and given that he really didn’t have to. And in the end, I don’t want to overlook the fact that I really enjoyed it when I was young, and even as a jaded adult reader, once I actually got into the meat of the book, I found it pretty enjoyable, in a mindless and mediocre way. There’s a lot more to it than I think many critics of Eddings are prepared to admit; and if nothing else, it’s considerably better than I feared it might be going in.
Long story short, it’s a book I’m glad to have read, and that I don’t totally regret having re-read. Unfortunately, it’s a book that’s more succesful in the memory than on the page.
But one final thing: this is strictly speaking irrelevent, but oh how I love that page. It’s possible I gave the novel too much benefit of the doubt on account of how it smelled. There were times when I found myself having forgotten read on, found myself just sniffing the paper. It smells the same now as it did then, and how divine is that smell. Few modern books smell right, I think – they often smell too clean, too chemical. This one still smells of dusty spellbooks in rain-lashed libraries. And how did they make that paper? It’s a miracle of physics! I tell no lie, the paper is so thin that holding the book in the right position, under the right lighting, lifting up a page for the light to pervade it, the words were struck through by a flight of slender rainbows arcing through the paper as the paper slit the light like a prism. You don’t get that with modern books…
Adrenaline: 3/5. Although it’s slow and tedious to get into, I actually found it pretty compelling later on, with a fast pace and plenty of stuff happening. On the other hand, I didn’t care enough to be thrilled.
Emotion: 3/5. Surprisingly affecting – largely due to isolated and out-of-authorial-character moments of real human connection, plus the generally brooding air. But these moments were too few to make this a notably emotional book.
Thought: 2/5. Not a 1 because the plot is twisty enough and people talk quickly enough that you have to have your brain working fully just to keep up with what’s going on.
Beauty: 3/5. As with the emotion score, a somewhat surprising achievement of mediocrity here. The prose is dull and unskilled, but mostly avoids being hideous, and there are some good images here and there.
Craft: 2/5. There are a lot of Fantasy authors much worse than Eddings in terms of craft. But that’s not saying much, is it?
Endearingness: 2/5. I’d like to like it more, but I don’t think I do. The slight nasty smell about its politics might by itself be overlooked, but the thin characterisation, clichés, continual smugness and tension-disolving rapidity give little reason to do so. On the other hand, it’s a fun enough adventure, the characters are mostly OK, and there are glimpses of something better that it could have been, so I don’t hate it.
Originality: 2/5. Not atrociously unoriginal, since, as I note above, it is a surprising take on the genre and does have genuinely interesting elements. However, its proto-grimdark approach feels a lot less remarkable now that grimdark itself is mainstream, and fundamentally this is a thoroughly and intentionally familiar story. The details may occasionally be novel, but the characters, large-scale plot, and setting are all positively dripping with cliché.
OVERALL: 3/7. BAD, BUT WITH REDEEMING FEATURES. This isn’t a good book. It just isn’t. There’s really no way I could coherently or honestly say that it was. It’s not even ‘not bad’ – no no, it really is a bad book, in a whole bunch of ways. But at the same time, it’s not a book that deserves to be tossed into the ‘worthless’ pile. There are things to like here, and it’s functional as a story. So in the final analysis, if I were giving someone a reading list for Fantasy, this would be a long way down the list… but it probably would be on it.
Edit: I’ve reviewed the second and third volumes here.