Pawn of Prophecy

by David Eddings

Cover image

Series: The Belgariad #1
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: April 1982
Printing: August 1990
ISBN: 0-345-33551-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 258

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I hit a period in November when I felt like reading something entirely undemanding and fun, something that was predictable, comfortable, and guaranteed to be a happy ending. There are times in life for books like that. I've been vaguely thinking of re-reading the Belgariad for a while, which I'd not read since I was in college, and that seemed to fit the bill.

Garion is a farm-boy in Sendaria, a quiet and industrious kingdom full of farmers. His only family is his Aunt Pol, who ran the kitchen at Faldor's farm. His life has all the hallmarks of being entirely unremarkable, despite occasional visits by a traveling vagabond, Wolf, who clearly knows his Aunt Pol. But then something extremely important is stolen elsewhere, Wolf and Pol have to leave to pursue it for reasons that are quite murky to Garion, and Pol is unwilling to leave Garion behind. This begins Garion's great adventure, in which he becomes far more important and powerful than he would have ever imagined.

That's the promise, at least, and the stock plot of every series like this. And let me be clear up front: the Belgariad is very stock. That's part of what I was in the mood for, but don't come to this series looking for interesting differentiation. It's clearly in the center of the secondary world chosen one fantasy genre, with a great evil, forces of good arrayed against it, and someone who unknowingly has the power to stop evil but has to learn how to use it. If you're in the mood for this, every note will be comfortably familiar; if not, it might be boringly predictable.

Unfortunately, this particular book does not cast the Belgariad in a good light. Garion's introduction to this story is intensely irritating, almost entirely because no one will tell him what's going on. Pol is excessively protective (smotheringly so), but shuts down any questions he has and doesn't explain why she's freaking out. (This doesn't become entirely clear until towards the end of the second book.) What little scraps Garion picks up, he has to get by eavesdropping. Even by the end of this book, when Garion has met royalty and started helping with larger political issues (albeit mostly by accident), everyone is keeping him in the dark and he doesn't believe the hints he's gotten. I can't remember how I reacted to this the first time I read this series, but the second time through, it was extremely frustrating.

The frustration is stronger because any regular reader of this genre knows exactly what Garion is, although not precisely how the story will play out, and can make fairly good guesses about Pol and Wolf from early in the story. Everyone playing coy doesn't even add legitimate suspense or set up a big reveal. It just made me irritated at Garion's blindness (it's mildly understandable given how foreign the idea is to his life, but he seems remarkably dense even with that), and even more irritated at Wolf and, in particular, Aunt Pol for keeping him so thoroughly in the dark. Garion is very attached to his aunt; on this re-reading, I wasn't entirely sure why. She occasionally shows love and support, and she's certainly wise, but for most of the book she treats him with brusque condescension and tries to keep him as ignorant as possible.

Garion's weird entanglement with a black rider that he'd seen for most of his life doesn't make this any better. It's creepy and disturbing, it's not entirely resolved in this book, and Garion is clearly in danger, which wasn't the vibe that I was looking for when starting this re-read. And it's hard to escape the feeling that Garion might have managed to tell someone if all the adult figures in his life weren't so secretive, dismissive, and excessively controlling.

So, all in all, an inauspicious beginning. It was good enough to keep me reading when I first read the series, and it was good enough on this re-read, but just barely. The saving grace is Silk and Barak, when the story finally meets them. Those who have read this series will know that they're just the beginning of the party-building process that will take up much of this series (so many Lord of the Rings resonances), but the one thing I will give Eddings is that he writes entertaining supporting characters. Both of them are a bit stereotyped, but they add so much to this story. Silk in particular is a delight and remains a delight throughout the series, adding a much-needed level of snark and sneaky enjoyment that lightens so many of the serious episodes of this story.

The Belgariad in general is highly derivative map exploration fantasy, and you shouldn't expect anything deeper. It is, however, enjoyable map exploration fantasy with some entertaining supporting cast members. Sadly, only the glimmers of that are visible from this book. Pawn of Prophecy is mostly an irritating tour of bad parenting techniques, refusal to talk to teenagers, sneaking around to get information that should have been legitimately shared, and taking forever to get around to the mythology that we all know is coming.

I therefore can't recommend this book, although one does have to read it in order to read the rest of the series, which as I recall gets considerably better.

Followed by Queen of Sorcery.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-28

Last modified and spun 2016-12-30