"The Belgariad," Parts one and two

The first book of The Belgariad, David Eddings' five book high fantasy epic, first appeared in 1982. I was at the time old enough to have concluded I didn't read children's books any more. In looking back recently, the series came up as a well known and well regarded series I'd skipped over. So I read the first two books, Pawn of Prophecy and Queen of Sorcery.

Our protagonist is Garion, who is 13(?) when the first book starts. He lives a quiet and rather idyllic life on a farm in a peaceful country, watched over by his Aunt Pol. Although if you read the ponderous introduction about the world's prehistory and gods, you will immediately identify her as the very long-lived sorceress Polgara - a "revelation" that comes about half way through the book. Like many children's books, our protagonist constantly stumbles on the most important events in the country and overhears or influences them. Eddings leans heavily on the idea that evil people are ugly and/or smelly: by the second book he's working a bit on bringing home the lesson that "you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," but bad people are still scarred or have "dead eyes." Life lessons are laid on with a trowel: my favourite was "don't marry for looks alone," with Garion's travelling companion Barak being burdened with a resentful and cold wife ... but it's by no means the only one. There are lessons about being considerate to others, thinking before you act ... I'll spare you the dozens of others.

As a fantasy book, it strikes me as a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, which is also a five book series about a young boy coming to adulthood as his entire kingdom falls into war against an unthinkably powerful enemy. Lloyd Alexander's Taran is also an orphan, but Eddings' Garion has shown by the second book that he is himself a powerful (if uncontrolled) sorcerer, whereas Taran does what he does with no powers at all. But both travel with their wildly varied party of life-lesson-giving friends, and I suspect that in the second book of the Belgariad we've already met Garion's future bride - who bears a remarkable similarity to the Princess Eilonwy of Prydain (we'll see if I'm right about that). We could also compare Belgarath and Dallben (both essentially immortal sorcerers). Eddings' target audience is two to four years older than Alexander's, but Alexander got there 18 years prior and set the bar pretty high. Eddings' prose is slightly better, but two books in I'm favouring Alexander ... Don't get me wrong: I'm enjoying it, but one thing I won't be accusing it of is originality.

Which leads me to a weird digression: if you want original fantasy, something different than anything else you've read, go try Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. Okay, the man writes lousy prose, but since The Lord of the Rings the whole sword-and-sorcery-with-a-quest thing has been the only paradigm that exists in fantasy. There's a quest in Mythago Wood, but the ideas are the most radically different from any other fantasy you're going to find.

Second prize in the category of original fantasy ideas goes to Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, which is somewhere in a totally unoccupied zone between fantasy, steam-punk, and the modern world ... and better written than any of the other books mentioned here.