The Ruby Knight, and The Sapphire Rose, by David Eddings

The strengths and weaknesses of The Ruby Knight and The Sapphire Rose are more or less the same as those of The Diamond Throne, and to be honest they aren’t fascinating books in any case. I’m not going to give a full review of each of them, therefore. However, some general notes are in order, I think.

First off: if The Diamond Throne was impressively willing to depart from a succesful formula, its sequels are willing to completely blow that formula up. I’m not sure any pulp fantasy book before or since has devoted half its page count to the minutiae of an electoral procedure the way The Sapphire Rose does, complete with updated vote counts every few pages and discussions on quorums and supermajorities and the legislative conventions regarding points of order. Sure, there are mangonels and conspiracies and mass-murder and howling fanatics and whatnot, making it different from most elections, but it’s still basically half a novel about an election.

More generally, Eddings is still willing to push his proto-grimdark line. The Elder God Azash and his unspeakable servants inject a strongly Lovecraftian scent into the epic fantasy, and some of the darker elements in this vein are succesfully creepy. That not being enough for Eddings, there’s a sharp right turn into Hammer Horror in the middle of The Ruby Knight, an interlude (terrified peasants, ill-aspected wood, sinister castle, travellers in the night, etc) that feels narratively and tonally out of place, but that actually both works well in its own right and fits surprisingly well into the whole – out of place, perhaps, but in a complementary way.

And if anyone’s doubting his grim and dark credentials, there’s even an explicit lesbian torture-snuff-cannibalism scene in there. [Reminder: I was about eight when I read this. Re-reading it was the first time I think I’ve ever read something in a book I first read as a child and thought “oh, that’s probably not appropriate for children”. Having gotten past the icky moment of it, I’ve reconsidered somewhat – children are pretty good at not being traumatised by the written word – but it’s still a bit shocking that it’s there, given that the writing style is clearly aimed at young adults at the oldest]. The scene rather demonstrates that weird taboo imbalance that we (and in particular conservative Americans) have: the heroes can wade through blood (a phrase he actually uses) and brutally and graphically torture and murder people, as can the villains, but anything vaguely sexual requires a grin and a wink to the reader. There’s nothing wrong with the author being coy about things, and nothing wrong with them being graphic – but the combination of coyness in one respect and graphicness in the other comes across as at best maladjusted and at worst (since the violence is never really serious, even when it’s horrible) exploitative.

Edding’s greater achievement as grimdark, though, is in realising that the depressing can be more important in setting tone than the graphic and the horrible. Eddings is able to inject negative mood into his story when it’s needed, particularly by turning his band of heroes to bickering – a bickering that may not initially be noticed, but that sets the mood of the scene very effectively, whether that’s to build apprehension before something bad or to to be relieved by something good. The ending of the trilogy is also notable in that regard, for the way that it focuses on the emotions of both the characters and the reader, rather than just on the plot – although unfortunately it’s so overshadowed by the climax of the plot that it’s easy to try to skim through it. I suppose you could say that this is his ‘Scouring of the Shire’ attempt, although the plot-line is very different from Tolkien’s.

And one last reason to praise him (beyond, it should be said, some good scenes and some very interesting ideas): he has a degree of self-awareness that many writers don’t possess. He knows he’s writing with a bunch of tropes hanging in the background, and he’s not afraid to mess with the reader by subverting those tropes or overtly lampshading them. Sometimes he’s even quite clever about it. Particularly audacious is his use of a prophecy… which isn’t actually mentioned until right at the end of the trilogy, when it’s basically already been fulfilled. It’s like reading Wheel of Time and only finding out that Rand is the Dragon Reborn in the final chapter, when nobody has ever mentioned the whole ‘Dragon Reborn’ concept until that point – it’s a delightfully strange moment.

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And yet… these really aren’t very good books. And a big part of that has to fall into a general “Eddings isn’t a great writer” black hole of useless analysis, but on reflection I do think there are three big, important flaws underlying a lot of what goes wrong in this book.

The first is the dialogue. Now, the problem isn’t that the dialogue is bad. It’s not good, sometimes it’s bad, and it’s always rather repetitive – in particular, it keeps finding itself in a rut in terms of mood, with far too much flippancy and smugness. But no, that’s not the problem. The problem is that there’s just too much of it. I’m not sure why I didn’t realise this at first. Perhaps just because I’m so used to the problem with fantasy novels being a surfeit of descriptive passages. I think one reason why Eddings was so overwhelmingly popular in his day was that he broke away from the description and had a lot of accessible dialogue between recognisable, modernesque people instead. But it’s also where he falls down. I said in my review of The Diamond Throne that there was too much plot stuffed into too few pages: well, a big part of why that’s a problem is that when he’s rushed, Eddings turns to dialogue. There’s endless sequences of people explaining things to other people, planning things with other people, describing things to other people, having witty banter about things with other people. To be sure, Eddings mostly avoids repetition of content, but that just means an endless number of “he explained” and “she briefly recounted” and so on. Even when it’s not on the page, it’s still talking. And that automatically takes us one step away from the action. It’s all “they quickly massacred the racially inferior simpletons”, and then two pages of banter, regret, analysis and so on. We don’t get to be there in the middle of the action, we just get to float over the action listening to what people think about it. Put it like this: it feels at times like epic fantasy for the radio. Now, of course having lots of dialogue can work: but it shifts the drama from the events to the characters. And that’s a very bad idea for Eddings, because his strength lies in the drama, and absolutely not in the characterisation, which for the most part is utilitarian at best, and downright empty at worst. And yet in a way that too is a shame: Eddings can do character. There are times when he does it effectively, even when he introduces some interesting and unexpected notes – particularly when he sees how theatrical and one-dimensional some of his characters are and turns it on the reader by inviting us to see the simplistic surface as hiding something more complex beneath. He can do character – but he doesn’t. For all the dialogue, he rarely uses it to actually build character in more than a superficial way – instead, the dialogue is all devoted to the plot, and character-building, where it occurs, is a happy bonus. Now, if he had used dialogue to create character, it would have been a slow and meditative trilogy, but fascinating. If he had used description to create plot, it could have been exciting and dynamic and satisfying. Instead, for large chunks of the story, he uses dialogue to create plot: the wrong tool for the wrong job, and the result is emotionally distant and tonally monotonous.

And that’s a great shame, because he’s so clearly at his best when he steps away from the plot-furthering dialogue and gives us some incidental detail of scenery or psychology – at those times, he’s a solidly mediocre writer with some genuinely effective moments.

The second problem is the author’s simplistic conservativism. Now, I’m not normally someone to judge a book by the politics of the author. Probably my favourite poet, for instance, is E.E. Cummings – but I couldn’t disagree more with a good half or two thirds of what he (in such passionate and opinionated ways) says: the anti-intellectualism, the lecherousness (some of his sex-poems are beautiful, but his obsession with sex and prostitutes does sometimes go over into ickyness), the misogynistic suggestions, the devoutly McCarthyite hatred of anything even vaguely left-wing, now and then the religious fire-and-brimstone. I love the kinetic fury of a poem like “F is for foetus”, for instance (a violent excoriation of FDR), even if I disagree with its sentiments.

And when it just the character complaining about the size of the government bureaucracy or the level of general taxation, I’m fine with it. I don’t mind the author having those opinions, and I certainly don’t mind the characters having those opinions. No, the problem isn’t so much the political conservativism, as the social conservativism. Part of that is the inherent racism – which is partly the author and partly the characters, but I wish it was clearer which part was which – and part of it is the confused attitude toward female sexuality (in which prostitution is treated smirkingly and whores (with one exception) are always happy nymphomaniacs, but promiscuity in a respectable woman makes her irredeemable filth, and evil besides – a fair enough attitude for mediaeval characters to hold, I suppose, but again I wish it weren’t so easy to believe it’s the author’s view too), and part of it is the totally classist view, in which the noble peons exist only to be well led. A small but sharp part of it is the frankly disturbing view of pseudo-incestuous sexual relationships in which pre-pubescent females are cast as predators ensnaring adult men – and this is presented as a positive thing. Hell, the central romantic quest springs from the sexual/romantic love between a middle-aged man and his surrogate daughter, presented as such a perfect match precisely because he created every aspect of her personality and more or less (accidentally) groomed her to love him from birth, while in return she set out to sexually entrap him from early childhood. Now my problem there isn’t that that’s a seriously disturbing incestuous relationship – no, that would actually be a really interesting relationship to explore in more depth. It isn’t even exactly that this relationship is there and unexamined, its creepiness left hidden in the corners under a gauze of romanticism. It’s that there’s at least two of these relationships, and iirc definite suggestions of a third, and hints of others: it’s the way that young girls are presented more or less as by default sexual predators, and as needing ‘taking in hand’ by their father-figures, sexually, as a matter of course. Not as a few weird relationships that spring up or as a few unusual characters with unusual life-histories, but as something perfectly normal and not needing to be explored, just the way women and men are. Now again, this is a small thing: all the explicit mentions along these lines would take up no more than a paragraph or two if combined together; but it’s a striking, and in these clumsy hands somewhat offputting, note.

[Perhaps it is worth mentioning here, again, that these books were probably co-written by the official author and his wife, which I suppose ought to count for something when considering the portrayal of women and of relationships]

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But the big part is the ideology of force. To put it simply: bullying is good. And goodness is bullying, the two are the same. The cure for troublemaking is bullying. It can be a benign form of bullying, like beating naughty children thoroughly enough until they love you and become good people. Or it can be a more sinister form of bullying, like brutally murdering somebody because they were rude to you and didn’t realise you were better than them. Evildoers rebel against authority, and goodness is reimposing that authority through violence – which might be less troubling if it applied to the good characters too. But of course, heroes are super-men, not bound by conventional rules and customs and the soulless stupid apparatchiks who enforce them. Superior men don’t have to do what they’re told – indeed it’s their duty to murder (if men) or manipulate (if women) everybody else to get their way, because their way is good. And you can tell they’re superior because they do murder and manipulate. The real difference between the good and the evil (as opposed to the mass of unthinking sheep inbetween who need a good thrashing) is that the evil people are cowards who hide in shadows, and the good people are brave and perfectly open about their superiority. Except when they’re not, but that’s OK because they’re the good guys.

Of course, I’m extrapolating and exaggerating. Eddings’s books aren’t a political screed, and he doesn’t beat the reader about the head with this. And there are times when Eddings hints in the direction of suggesting his psychopathic heroes may not be entirely morally unimpeachable. But the core conviction that might is right is always there. I’m left unsure whether Eddings is intentionally toning down his views to let them slip more insidiously into the reader’s mind without questioning, or whether he’s genuinely unaware of this authoritarian streak in his basic assumptions about the world. Either way, that’s a problem not just aesthetically but structurally. Because might is right, the good must triumph through force and violence. Sure, the occasional hoodwink of the the bad guys is allowable in the details, so that we can point and laugh at how stupid evildoers are, but fundamentally conflict must be resolved through the righteous crushing the unrighteous through violence, preferably with a lochaber.

And that can be satisfying. Few things are more satisfying in the moment than the good guys righteously kicking ass. The problem is, that means they must have the ability to kick that ass, so they must be stronger. But the whole plot can only exist because the enemy is stronger than the good guys – much, much, much stronger.

Which means that the plot comes down to an endless series of deus ex machina moments, where everything just happens to go perfectly well at all times for no particular reason, levelling the playing field so that good can win without having to really try. And failing that, the bad guys will just have to be rubbish without any good explanation given whatsoever.

[Another tangential thing worth mentioning: although Eddings’ career took flight at broadly the same time as the baby-boomer fantasists, he was born a good fifteen to twenty-five years earlier, way back in 1931. If he sometimes seems a little more old-fashioned than most of his ‘contemporaries’, this may be partly why. Writers like Martin, Jordan, King, Brooks, Donaldson, Pratchett and so forth were all teenagers in the early sixties… Eddings was born in the Depression and was a teenager during WWII and its immediate aftermath. He was also, incidentally, the only one of the big fantasy authors of the eighties and nineties not of an age to read Narnia and the Lord of the Rings in adolescence]

And that’s where we come to the third big problem. Because one way in which the playing field can be levelled is through magic… and Eddings has created a setting where ultimately everything comes down to the author deciding on a case by case basis what magic will or won’t do.

This could work. The magic system is prayer-based – every ‘spell’ is actually a request made of a god (although the gods also use spells, so I don’t know what’s going on there), which means that magic is really pretty fickle and incomprehensible. And that could be a virtue, if the books were willing to embrace that fickleness in all its frustrating terror. Or if the books were willing to reduce the fickleness through a thorough religious examination, where the characters were thinking all the time about what would or wouldn’t please their gods. But neither of those things happens, because basically the heroes have a pet god on their side and the fickleness and/or previously undisclosed kryptonite issues only arise when the plot dictates. The power of the heroes therefore fluctuates between omnipotence and helplessness, and there’s rarely any more explanation than “you wouldn’t understand” or “the gods don’t like doing that” (and then nobody worries about it or gets pissed off or anything): all we know is that the gods will help out just enough to ensure victory at relatively little cost, but just little enough to draw the plot out into three volumes.

Eddings makes it obvious that every obstacle will be overcome by hitting it with a big enough axe, and then he lets us know that the size of the axe available will always and only be determined purely by the demands of the plot. This takes a lot of the tension out of the conflicts.

What we get in the end, then, is a frustrating vision of what could have been an epochal fantasy series, the moment when mainstream fantasy, from the world’s biggest fantasy author, turned in a much darker and dirtier direction. That turn into darkness would have been supported by some strong ideas, some bold decisions in pacing and plotting, and some powerful moments. Unfortunately, Eddings’ general weakness as a writer, his decision to cram in plot while minimising both character-building and immersive description, his inability to avoid a certain over-flippant tone, and his refusal to abandon his simplistic, cartoonish, deus-ex-machina-requiring depiction of force as resolving all conflicts, in favour of a more nuanced and satisfying mechanic that would have complemented his turn to more adult background material, all conspired to hamstring the project, rendering it neither one thing nor another, neither fully satisfying pulp entertainment nor more mature reading.

As a result, this isn’t a must-read for anyone other than students of the genre’s history. That said, those with time on their hands and a high tolerance for the genre may find it interesting enough to be worth the read. There is, after all, something compulsive about frustration.

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Adrenaline: 3/5. At times a 1 or a 2, but at other times Eddings is able to deliver effectively tense and exciting scenes.

Emotion: 2/5. Characters too thin and too distant to get too emotionally engaged with them.

Thought: 3/5. Although to be fair a large part of that is thought about how the same books could be re-written so much better.

Beauty: 2/5. There are occasional pretty moments of description. But mostly this is ugly – both intentionally, in its darkness, and unintentionally, in its ungainliness on the page.

Craft: 2/5. There are moments of competence – even, frustratingly, moments suggesting some talent on the part of the author, if only he’d played to his strengths. But there’s a lot wrong here.

Endearingness: 2/5. It can be a slog at times, speckled with little nuggets of objectionable sentiment.

Originality: 4/5. Yes, some elements are still extremely formulaic. But I think that if you started at the beginning of the second book at tried to predict the shape of the next two volumes, you’d be a long way off what actually happens. Plus, Eddings does make his setting distinctive, and there are a few scenes I wouldn’t expect to find elsewhere.

OVERALL: 4/7. NOT BAD. To be honest, ‘not bad’ does feel like a bit of a charitable answer, after writing the review – but to be fair, I was enjoying it substantially more when I was reading it. And although the flaws in the series became more and more clear as I went on, I do think these two books are a step up from the first in the trilogy, and although the flaws are glaring, there are virtues here as well to balance them out – it’s a work with a distinctive feel, easy to read, moderately fun. And the fact that it’s so frustrating in its failure to be what it could be is itself a sign that there is something there to provoke that frustration. Which is more than many books have.

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One thought on “The Ruby Knight, and The Sapphire Rose, by David Eddings

  1. […] Edit: I’ve reviewed the second and third volumes here. […]

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