Magician's Gambit

by David Eddings

Cover image

Series: The Belgariad #3
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: June 1983
Printing: February 1990
ISBN: 0-345-33545-7
Format: Mass market
Pages: 305

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Magician's Gambit is the third book of the Belgariad, and although it's the best, you probably can't start here. Too much setup has already happened by this point of the story.

In retrospect, it's my memories of this book that led me to hang on to this series all these years and pick it up for a re-read. Garion has finally gotten past his whining (mostly), the party puts Ce'Nedra in a hole and leaves her there for a bunch of the book, and the characters finally do something concrete (and significant) in advancement of the plot. Eddings does a good job of avoiding the series problem of saving up all the climactic moments for the end of the story and instead adds a very good middle climax to the story that wraps up the main plot line of the first three books.

I think this is also the book that best displays the interestingly quirky ways that Eddings approaches the epic fantasy genre. (Now to figure out how to talk about them without spoiling the story....)

One of my favorite bits in this series is the dry voice in the back of Garion's head. I don't want to say too much about it, since discovering the nature of that voice slowly over the series is part of the fun. But this is the book where most of that mystery is revealed, and it's a rather different spin on the wise advisor trope. Garion has more than the usual number of mentor figures, and like many books of this type they function partly as plot devices to force the story down the correct path. One of the things that makes plot devices irritating is that they feel forced on the story from outside. Eddings here pulls a trick to embed that device inside the story, so it feels less like the hand of the author and more like an aspect of the mythology. I'm not sure it would work for everyone, and the execution isn't that sophisticated, but it's entertained me every time I read this series.

It helps that the voice is an interesting character in its own right, and one of the few characters in the book who takes Garion seriously and explains things to him. By comparison, Belgarath and Polgara are still annoyingly high-handed and uncommunicative (particularly Polgara).

Another highlight of this book is a lovely interlude in Belgarath's home, where we meet some of his colleagues (Beldin is a delight) and Garion finally starts experimenting with his own power. I mostly read this series for the supporting characters, not for Garion, who spends far too much time whining and most of the rest of the time being just neutrally there. But in this book Eddings finally gives him some moments of real awe and discovery, using one of my favorite approaches to the powerful chosen one character: making normally-hard things easy but normally-easy things unintuitive because they think about magic differently than anyone else. Most of the moments when Garion does something that shouldn't be possible are highlights.

We also get nearly the final characters for Garion's band, and they're good ones. Relg is mostly amusing in some of his later reactions to specific characters and is a bit tedious in this book, but Errand is a unique idea and one of my favorite characters of the series. He fits well with the tendency of this series to not take itself, or power, or mythology, too seriously. Eddings avoids the trap of making everything Significant and Fraught; characters snark and do things on a whim, power has funny side effects, and the most powerful object in the story is treated in a way that has one both laughing and flinching at the same time. (It's a nice twist on and homage to some of the trappings around the One Ring, while making it far more light-hearted.)

There are a few things I could complain about (the gender stereotyping between Garion and Ce'Nedra is so strong, for instance), but they're more minor here than in previous books. I enjoy reading about characters doing things they're very good at, and there's quite a lot of that here. (That said, I do feel like I should mention somewhere that one of the characters is very good at killing Murgos, who are supposedly human. I suppose it wouldn't be epic fantasy without a bit of casual genocide, and to be fair the Murgos in question are mostly trying to track down and kill the party, but the way that's played partly for laughs gets distasteful if one thinks about it too much.)

This series is at its best when it balances dramatic prophecy with irreverent poking, gives the protagonists moments of odd and very human joy (Garion's colt!), and celebrates the unlikely and unexpected collection of people (or fable characters) who are drawn together by the story. I think this book hits those notes well, and although the flaws of the previous books are still there, they're muted and don't get as much screen time. Instead, we get some fun foreshadowing, a sense of power and growth, a few moments of delight and awe, and a lot of the sort of exasperated wise-cracking common to experienced people who trust each other and are working together on something hard.

Magician's Gambit, and this whole series, will not be to everyone's taste, but it's the first book of the series I can comfortably recommend if you like this sort of thing.

Followed by Castle of Wizardry.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-30

Last modified and spun 2017-01-03