Queen of Sorcery

by David Eddings

Cover image

Series: The Belgariad #2
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: November 1982
Printing: March 1992
ISBN: 0-345-33565-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 322

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Queen of Sorcery is the second book in the Belgariad, which is a "one story in five books" sort of series. You could probably take a chance on skipping Pawn of Prophecy, since it's not a very good book, but some parts of the story may be confusing without it.

We're now getting into the part of the series where I can start saying some nice things about it, so I should put that in context and not get expectations too high.

The Belgariad as a series is fully invested in the stock symbols and stereotypes of Tolkien-derivative fantasy. White is good; black is bad. West is good; east is bad. People are very neatly divided into countries, and national traits are exceptionally strong. The Murgos, the people who serve (although "under the thumb of" would be more accurate, Eddings doesn't spend much time thinking about the difference) the Big Bad of the series, are basically orcs, for all that they're theoretically human. With an unsympathetic reading, it's very easy to see the echos of the Yellow Peril in the war between the west and the east, including the standard trope of fractious, arguing, and diverse western kingdoms against a unified horde from the east. (To be fair, Eddings does undermine the unity a bit with the Nadraks later in the series, and my recollection is that the Mallorean, a follow-on series, undermines it even further.)

Given that, I've been trying to figure out why I had fond memories of this series and enjoyed this re-read, since that normally isn't my thing. There are a few elements that are best talked about in the context of the next book, but one element shows up here as the party of heroes, finishing their forced detour in Cherek, head south through Arendia. Eddings is aware that he's stereotyping each nation of people in this world and embraces it so thoroughly that it stops feeling like stereotypes and starts feeling more like a fable.

The Arends are a great example. Arendia is pure medieval fantasy world (even more so than the rest of this world). There are knights in castles, large forests reserved for noble hunting, and miserable serfs. The Arends, apart from the serfs, are full of tales of glory and honor, are impulsive and loyal to a fault, and are in the midst of a simmering internal war that's just barely not broken into open fighting. But the Arends know that they have an unhealthy obsession with honor, know that they constantly get themselves into trouble by being absolutist about honor and far too impulsive, and can't seem to help themselves. They bemoan the war while being apparently unable to do anything that would bring it to an end.

If you think of them as people, none of this makes much sense. If you think of them as talking animals in a fable, aware of their natures but still governed by them, it starts to strangely work. When they're isolated from their society by joining the protagonists' party (the early part of this series mostly involves collecting people, for reasons explained later in the series, while following the trail of a thief), the characters of Eddings's world start developing a bit more nuance and depth. But even then, it's more within the bounds that one would expect in a long fable, and falls a bit short of human growth. The lion might learn something from the badger, but the lion is still a lion.

With that frame, the first half of this book is rather entertaining. Eddings is taking the stereotype of the noble knight from a typical Arthurian romance and treating it like a class of animal in a fable, which I think is subtly delightful. There's even a doomed love triangle (a very chaste one, which is a reminder that this series was probably targeted at YA readers). The reader joins the primary characters in a sense of bemused exasperation. (Well, Garion takes the doomed love triangle much too seriously, but he's young).

Unfortunately, the second half of this book is not one of the finest moments in this series. It's mostly a duet of whining.

The first half of the whining comes from Garion, who finally discovers one of the many things about himself that's been obvious to the readers since the middle of the first book, and then promptly develops one of the worst cases of pathetic angst you'll encounter. The people who have been lying to him and keeping secrets from him are now all eager to teach him, which grates almost as much, whereas he's determined to never use his abilities. It makes me think the worst of absolutely everyone involved, and it all happens in one of the most depressing and disgusting settings of the book.

The second half of the whining comes from Ce'Nedra, who is by far my least favorite character of this series. She's intended to be an obnoxious, spoiled, imperious brat, and also runs headlong into gender roles in this series, which means she's a living mass of irritation and gender stereotypes, made worse by the fact that the protagonists mostly tolerate her and Garion's reactions to her nonsense are also whiny and obnoxious. It's not my favorite bit of reading. Ce'Nedra does get marginally better later in the series, but she's at her worst here, at the same time Garion is at his worst, which makes the last half of this book a real chore. The only real plus side is that the voice in the back of Garion's head gets a few great moments, but more on that in the next book where it starts playing a prominent role.

I should note here that Eddings isn't a complete disaster on gender in this series. There are a lot of unexamined stereotypes, but there are also a lot of examined ones, and it's obvious in places that he's trying. Polgara is a major character, women get some agency in this story, and they at least appear (which is never a given in Tolkien-derivative fantasy). But it's pretty obvious that gender roles start from a "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" set of expectations and then run into Eddings's general tendency to exaggerate all such divisions to fable levels, which in places isn't pretty.

And, well, there are all-female giggly dryads who have to capture men to reproduce and who have a euphoric reaction to chocolate. That's a thing that happens. So you may or may not want to agree with me about the completeness of the disaster. Adjust expectations accordingly.

If Queen of Sorcery had stuck with the tone of the first half of the book, I would say that it was doing something oddly interesting and showing some of the charm that made me want to re-read this series. Unfortunately, the second half of the book is a bit of a disaster, full of characters acting in ways that makes them very hard to like. Still, I plowed through this book in a couple nights of reading, so there's something here that draws one through the story. And the next book of the series is considerably better.

Followed by Magician's Gambit.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-12-29

Last modified and spun 2016-12-31