No one would ever accuse fantasy author David Eddings of being too complicated. Although he's known for several trilogies and five-part epics, Eddings creates fantasy worlds that seem like Middle-Earth for second graders. So, then, why are they so much damn fun to visit?
I found Pawn of Prophecy, the first book in Edding's first big epic The Belgariad, when I was in grade school, which was the perfect time. See if this story sounds familiar: A young boy learns he's secretly not only the heir to a far-off kingdom, but destined to fight the evil god who lives on the other side of the world. As he journeys through a variety of countries where the peoples generally all share one outstanding characteristic — Sendarian are simple but steadfast, Drasnians are sly and generally spies — a large group of lovable characters help him on his journey, most notably a cantankerous old wizard of immense power.
Sound familiar? It's the standard formula that virtually every fantasy writer follows, and 99% of them feel like the Tolkien rip-offs they are. But somehow, not Eddings. While all the standard pieces are there, and the adventure of young Garion as he coming into his birthright and fights the vengeful, scarred god Torak hits all the same marks, there's something about David Eddings' fantasy that makes this journey as fascinating as when Frodo Baggins delivered his ring — and sometimes, more fun.
A large part of The Belgariad and The Mallorean's appeal is how the epic begins, with young Garion growing up on a simple farm with no notion of his destiny. The book and the writing starts out very soberly, but Eddings' simplicity matches the experience of youth well, and as Garion grows up, so does Edding's prose. We really feel Garion growing up in a way few other book series can hope to accomplish, and it ties us emotionally to him as he slowly learns about his world and his fate.
That world, of course, is almost cartoonishly simple. Where Tolkien's Middle-Earth is rich in historical detail and complexity, the setting of Eddings' Belgariad (and its sequel epic, The Mallorean) is… well, efficient might be the best way to put it. Again, the countries each have one broad stereotype that virtually all of the inhabitants share. Besides the aforementioned countries of Sendaria and Drasnia, there's Cherek, which are essentially Vikings, and Tolnedra, a smallish empire clearly based on Ancient Rome. At least the Angaraks — the evil people devoted to worship of Torak — have a few countries of their own, including the Thulls (dumb), the Nadraks (more self-interested than outright evil) and the Murgos (just outright evil). There is an ancient history to know, but it literally only affects Garion and his group. And the world's system magic is equally simple — the Will and the Word, with the only rule being you can't unmake something (or you blow up).
So what makes this world so compelling? Without any doubt, its characters. David Eddings has a knack for writing characters you want to hang out with, whether you're 8 or 48. The Belgariad and The Mallorean have a huge cast, and I've mentioned how easy it is to identity with the protagonist, Garion, but every character is someone you'd love to have as a friend. Belgarath the sorcerer is exactly like Gandalf if he was fun. Belgarath gets drunk, flirts, and raises hell, even though he's the most powerful wizard on the planet. Silk is a Drasnian spy and thief who is as ready with a quip as his daggers. Then there's Mandorallen, a knight whose allegiance to chivalry utterly obliterates his common sense.
And they're all funny, because David Eddings is screamingly good at dialogue. Perhaps the dialogue isn't so brilliant that he makes these characters feel fully realized, but it definitely achieves pure entertainment. For just one small example, please see this scene from Magician's Gambit (book 3 of The Belgariad) in which Silk has just thrown the evil assassin Brill off a high cliff:
"What was that?" Belgarath asked, coming back around the corner.
"Brill," Silk replied blandly, pulling his Murgo robe back on.
"Again?" Belgarath demanded with exasperation. "What was he doing this time?"
"Trying to fly, last time I saw him." Silk smirked.
The old man looked puzzled.
"He wasn't doing it very well," Silk added.
Belgarath shrugged. "Maybe it'll come to him in time."
"He doesn't really have all that much time." Silk glanced out over the edge.
From far below - terribly far below - there came a faint, muffled crash; then, after several seconds, another.
"Does bouncing count?" Silk asked.
Belgarath made a wry face. "Not really."
"Then I'd say he didn't learn in time." Silk said blithely.
But while the characters are all clever and funny, but they aren't too clever, or too funny. They're not particularly self-aware, which keeps them from feeling like Eddings is trying too hard. There's no quip fatigue, as sometimes happens with Joss Whedon's earlier works or Kevin Smith movies. These are just funny, funny characters and getting to hang out with them for 10 full books is a delight — a delight that I get to reexperience every time I reread them (and I reread them every few years, at least).
David Eddings isn't the best fantasy author, and his world-building is, to put it kindly, lacking. But what Eddings achieves that so few authors do is to provide utter and total entertainment from start to finish over the course of these 10 books (and again in his later, separate trilogies The Elenium and The Tamuli). Eddings may have created a simple world, but it's one I've looked forward to returning to — much more than Tolkien, Robert Jordan, or even George R.R. Martin. And if that's not magic, what is?
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