Castle of Wizardry

by David Eddings

Cover image

Series: The Belgariad #4
Publisher: Del Rey
Copyright: May 1984
Printing: September 1991
ISBN: 0-345-33570-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 373

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Castle of Wizardry is the fourth book of the Belgariad and very much the middle of the story. Despite coming after an intermediate climax, this isn't the sort of series you can start in the middle.

The problem with intermediate climaxes in a long series is that the next book can be a bit of a let-down as the characters do the necessary regrouping and reorienting and determine next steps. I think that hurts Castle of Wizardry quite a lot. The best bits are at the beginning, as the party escapes the consequences of Magician's Gambit, collects one more party member, shows us a lot more of Errand (who is always delightful), and confounds Relg's life and world view considerably. (Although there's a good bit of authorial fiat in the last.) This builds into a major story event, which would normally help avoid the let-down after the climax, but it's the major story event that is so frequently and obviously foreshadowed that you'd have to be as dumb as, well, Garion to not know what's coming. That gives a certain "yes, yes, we know already" tone to proceedings that robs it of its ability to rebuild tension.

That said, the appeal of this series continues to be in the small details. While the first major event of this book goes pretty much as expected (including Ce'Nedra's reaction, which is just as irritating as you might be expecting), my favorite part was the endless, bubbly enthusiasm of the incredibly powerful artifact that features heavily. Usually epic fantasy will treat such world-breaking objects with seriousness and awe, as treasures to be admired and sacred (or terrifying) great works. See, for instance, the ur-example of Tolkien's rings, both the One Ring and the elven rings of power. Eddings manages a mix of awe and bemusement that doesn't undermine their power but that adds a delightful human element. This series pulls off treating a powerful magical artifact like an over-enthusiastic puppy without making it feel any less dangerous. It's a very neat, and I think underappreciated, trick to pull off.

Another part of this book I liked, if a more stock one, is Garion's reactions after the big story event. This isn't the first book to portray basic decency and thoughtfulness as a major feature in people from humble backgrounds elevated to great power, but I always enjoy seeing that. Garion stops whining (mostly) and starts acting like a decent, level-headed person who doesn't assume he has the right to arrange other people's lives, and is rewarded for it. Real life is often not that fair or ethical, but that's why one reads wish-fulfillment fantasy like this: for a world in which being a good person is rewarded.

However, Eddings does have some structural issues here. The narrative arc of this book, as a stand-alone entity, is odd. Its most dramatic event is in the middle, and then has a long traveling section that's, by comparison, much less exciting. The events of that section feel more like random encounters than a coherent part of the story, and are preceded by the most utterly ridiculous temper tantrums. I think the tantrums were meant to be pure humor, but my reaction was primarily eye-rolling. I have a hard time reconciling a screaming fit and breaking furniture with the long life experience and thoughtful planning of the character in question.

And then there is the Ce'Nedra section that closes this book, and Ce'Nedra in this book more generally.

To be fair, Castle of Wizardry is clearly intended to be Ce'Nedra's moment to grow as a person and stop being a childish brat. This does happen somewhat, and there are moments in the last section of the book where she does admirable things. But I couldn't quite believe in the mechanism, and it doesn't help that it's one of the most ham-handed bits of pre-ordained success in a book that has a tendency towards them. That undermines the real attempts Eddings makes to ground that success in Ce'Nedra's actual skills. Also undermining this is that those skills are manipulating people shamelessly, which Eddings seems to think is charming and attractive and I... don't.

But the real problem is that I flatly disbelieve in Ce'Nedra as a character, or, given the apparent existence of such a creature, the level of tolerance that other characters show her. If I'd been Polgara, within fifteen minutes of meeting her I would have been seriously debating whether the destruction of the world might be a small price to pay for the satisfaction of dumping her down the nearest well. And not only is she awful by herself but Garion also descends to the same level whenever he's around her, until both of them are behaving like blithering idiots.

I suspect part of my issue is that, to the extent that she is realistic at all, Ce'Nedra is the sort of intensely high-drama person who I have some amount of life experience with, and that life experience says "do not let this person anywhere near your life." Red flags all over everything. Garion needs to nope the hell out, because this will not end well. (Except, of course, it will, because it's that sort of series and the power of the author is strong.)

I want female characters with real agency in my fantasy, and I want a female protagonist who is doing things of equal importance as the male protagonist (not that Eddings attempts to go that far). But Ce'Nedra reads like a fictional character written by someone who had never met a woman, but has extensively studied female supporting characters in books about junior-high social cliques and then tried to reconcile that research with the stereotype of women as manipulative seductresses. Yes, this series is full of stereotypes and characters painted in broad strokes, but Ce'Nedra is several tiers below every other supporting character in the book in both believability and in my desire to read about her.

It's not that Eddings doesn't know how to write women at all. Polgara still falls into a few stereotyped categories, but she's sensible, opinionated, and has clear agency throughout the story. Taiba is delightful, if minor here. Poledra is absolutely wonderful whenever she appears. Some of the queens are obviously practical and sensible. And this book features a surprisingly good resolution to the subplot around Barak's wife, although the mechanism is a bit eye-rollingly cliched. Ce'Nedra's character is unusual for the series and almost certainly a deliberate authorial choice, and this book is supposed to be her coming of age. But I am baffled by that choice, and there's very little about it that I enjoyed reading.

One more minor complaint: Silk gets a "tragic secret" in this book, and I really wish he hadn't. More time with Silk is always a feature, and I still love the character, but his oddities were already adequately explained by both his innate character and his way of dealing with a particularly awkward court situation. (One that ties into Eddings's habit of using some bad relationship stereotypes, but that's a rant for another day.) I think this additional tragic secret was gratuitous and really unnecessary, not to mention weirdly implausible and oddly cruel towards the other character involved.

I was hoping that Magician's Gambit had turned a corner for the series, but Castle of Wizardry, despite having some neat moments, has some serious flaws. One more book to go, in which we learn that some of the eastern races have redeeming qualities!

Followed by Enchanter's End Game.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-01-02

Last modified and spun 2017-01-14