Tuesday 2 November 2010

Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

Some reviews are definitely harder to write than others, and this is probably the hardest I've had to write, in all honesty. Let me explain. I first read Pawn of Prophecy when I was 14 years old - it was one of my first forays into fantasy (after the usual LotR and C S Lewis shenanigans) and I have re-read it many times over the years. It is one of my comfort go-to reads, feeling like the equivalent of pulling on slippers and nestling in front of a log fire. Where is the objectivity? In addition to this, I also feel as though I almost have to write two reviews: one for the 14 year old who might be considering picking this novel up and one for the jaded adult who has read the likes of Abercrombie and Erikson.

Pawn of Prophecy marks the first book in the five book sequence of The Belgariad - and I confess to being surprised by the slightness of the novel. It is a mere two hundred and fifty or so pages in my copy. Compared to the over bloated fantasy epics we see these days, it is a very swift read.

The prose helps with this immensely. It is smooth and readable, with lively characters and clever dialogue. We follow the adventures of Garion, a farm boy growing up in the depths of Sendaria, learning solid Sendarian values of practicality and honesty. For the first third of the book, Eddings builds a rural picture of bliss and harmony, presenting Garion's life as peaceful and fulfilling. His Aunt Pol rules the kitchen, and an itinerant storyteller occasionally visits, bringing mischief in his wake.

One night all this changes, as Mister Wolf (as Garion terms the storyteller) comes to sweep Aunt Pol and Garion away to try and find 'something' that has been stolen. As they travel across Sendaria and into Cherek, Garion learns that he travels with important people and that he is living through a time of epic prophecy.

So far, so cliched, right? Of course, this book was written way back in 1982 - a world away in terms of how far fantasy has since travelled. Now the farmboy who saves the world is sneered at in terms of plot device, and the epic quest is left aside in favour of grimy warfare. At the time, Pawn of Prophecy would have felt fresh and new, showcasing a humorous team of questers who bicker and snark. The bad guys can be easily identified as such by their squinting eyes and body odour; the good guys are all loyal and clever.

Equally, to the 14 year old girl that I was, Pawn of Prophecy was like nothing I had ever read. I fell in love with the characters, particularly Silk, and devoured each book at a rate of knots. I loved the gentle romance and the moments of high fantasy. I didn't care that the characters were straight out of a D&D game, with the wise old wizard, and the barbarian, and the sneak thief - I just delighted in the snappy dialogue and the sweeping descriptions of the world these characters inhabited.

I still read it through rose-tinted spectacles to an extent - but I can see the limitations of the novel these days as well. It certainly won't feel fresh to an adult who has read a number of fantasy novels; it will feel tired and ever so slightly ridiculous. Some of the dialogue is a little too self-consciously clever, and there are moments when it seems as though Eddings thought of something good and shoehorned it into the novel.

However, there are still lovely points in the novel, and the comedy can still bring a smile:

"What of me, Aunt Pol?" Garion asked. "What do I do?"

"You can be my page."

"What does a page do?"

"You fetch things for me."

"I've always done that. Is that what it's called?"

As I mentioned, Pawn of Prophecy is a warm and cosy read, perfect when you don't want to have to think too hard. It is akin to drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows in the winter. A lot of people will become bored with the novel, comparing it unfavourably to more recent novels, but I adore it thanks both to nostalgia and appreciation for a book that almost stands the test of time (even as cliche-ridden as it is). I would recommend it for those who are a) starting out new into the fantasy genre b) those who enjoy gentle high fantasy, where the bad guys wear black and the good guys are always good and c) those people suffering the break-up of a relationship. For those people, this is a damn near perfect read.


  1. One of my all-time favourites. I read it at 16 - and the whole series within about two weeks. I think you're right about its relative lack of sophistication - but I really don't think that matters. Even now, to me, it seems refreshingly free of cynicism, clutter and angst, and will stand the test of time.

    I love the fact that it brought in *soapiness* to Epic Fantasy. The dialogue, the characters - it was just like reading a soap opera in a softly autumnal Tolkienesque world.

  2. Pawn of Prophecy is fun. Its not sophisticated or deep, but it is a fun read. As you said, it is an easy book to pick up and be transposed for a brief while.

  3. I read Pawn of Prophecy when I was 15 or 16. I wasn't big into reading during my teenage years, and this is one of the books that changed everything for me.

    I remember the second-hand shop where I bought the entire series, and the unmistakable musty scent the books had. They had been sitting on a shelf, neglected, for quite some time.

    I've always kept those books, and love picking them up every now and then, just to have the rush of memories come back.

  4. I too read lots of Eddings during my teenage years, from about or so 12/13 onward. Enjoyed it very much at the time.

    BTW: "a world away in terms of how far fantasy has since travelled." - really? Has it? It seems to me that a lot of new Fantasy writers have learned pretty much nothing from New Weird and are taking the genre nowhere.

    Apart from this rather bizarrely self-conscious recent fixation on 'grit' (sex & death) oldskool imagery and tropes (e.g. hackneyed feudal settings) and so on have been maintained pretty much intact. If anything I have rather more respect for the works of the likes of David Eddings than many of today's feted Fantasy novels: the former knows exactly what it is and that it's not groundbreakingly daring in terms of imagination or anything else.

    I can warm to trad Fantasy when Eddings does it, or Fritz Leiber, or Tolkien, or Jack Vance. However it's a little late in the day to be ploughing the same furrow (badly) but with the proviso "ah yeah, but look how grown up it is"

  5. I too read Eddings when I was 14 and still return to it when I need a shot of homey warmth when I feel blue. Hettar was my favourite though, but then I was a horse girl, he'd won by default!

  6. I was mid teens too when I first read it - and enjoyed it immensely.

    Even now many years later as an adult it is a guilty pleasure I pull out from time to time to indulge in.

    It is not without its problems but ignoring them you have a fun read.

  7. I LOVE the Belgariad; and the follow-up series, the Malloreon. When my older brother once said the second series was just the first one written all over again, I was too stunned to even reply; otherwise, I'd've spent the next month pointing out just how different the two series were.

    David Eddings actually broke a lot of new ground with the Belgariad. First, the father/daughter pairing of sorcerers. Belgarath and Polgara have great chemistry; much moreso than most pairings in epic fantasy. Second, the princess. Ce'Nedra is no weepy girl in need of rescue. Zubrette was, but she got left behind in the first book; just in time for the Queen of the World to arrive. And third, though certainly not final, the Voice that spoke to Garion. Not only do heroes rarely get an eternal, omniscient, more-powerful-than-the-Gods-Themselves companion to teach them what they need to know, to have one with such a dry, sarcastic wit is practically unheard of.

    "What do I do now?"

    "Pick up one foot and put it in front of the other. I'll let you decide which; just don't try to pick up both at once."

    I will never tire of the Belgariad, or the Malloreon. I have the entire set on my desk for reference's sake. I first read them when I was eleven, and if I live to be eleventy-one, I'll still love them.