Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Thoughts on two books by Adrian Goldsworthy …

October 13, 2017

So, I recently somewhat read two books on Roman History by Adrian Goldsworthy, Caesar and Pax Romana. I really liked Caesar, but couldn’t even manage to finish Pax Romana. I could have finished the latter if I had really tried, but I bought and was reading these books for entertainment and found at about the midway point that I wasn’t enjoying reading Pax Romana and wasn’t likely to start any time soon.

I think the main issue is that Pax Romana doesn’t really have a purpose, or at least one that the book supports. Goldworthy frames it as examining whether the Roman Empire could be considered peaceful and civilizing or aggressive and oppressive, but all he ends up doing is talking about how Rome gained its territories and how it governed them. While he generally slips in a comment or two about whether this made Rome oppressive or not, most of the time there’s no real direct relevance to the main thesis, and so if you are thinking about that premise you would be wondering how this all fits. However, most of the time you will have completely forgotten that that was what he was going for, and so simply be working through the details of how things worked in those areas or provinces. But he doesn’t go into enough detail on the everyday life of the people in those provinces or areas for it to work as just giving background history, and there’s no real chronological or even causal/narrative link between the sections to draw you along. Without a strong tie to the overall theme, the sections seem disconnected from each other, and the sections talk too shallowly about their specific topics to work as an interesting examination of those topics. At the end of the day, the topics examined were neither detailed enough to be enjoyed for their own sake or tied enough to a main thesis to work as establishing evidence for whatever conclusion Goldsworthy wanted us to draw.

Caesar works better — and is the one I read first — because it has an overarching framework to work with: Caesar. While there may be quibbles here and there, generally the book both has a reason for detailing what it does — telling us about Caesar — and has a chronological and causal chain carrying us from one chapter to the next, as we examine Caesar’s career. If we have to hop back into the past, it’s because what happened then is important — at least in the author’s mind — for understanding what happens to Caesar next. If we talk about political systems or historical events that don’t directly involve Caesar, it’s because it’s important to establish them in order to understand Caesar and how things got to that point. While the ending seemed a bit rushed, overall we get a pretty good narrative of Caesar and his life, as well as the cultural factors that made Rome what it was at the time and the systems that Caesar took advantage of and opposed.

Pax Romana had none of that, and so ended up seeming, at least to me, like a series of disconnected sections rather than any kind of comprehensive, unified work. And that, ultimately, bored me.

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Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Tamuli”

August 30, 2017

In addition to the fact that “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” kept distracting me from reading this trilogy, it was very interesting reading this because I was reading not merely or perhaps even not mostly for fun, but instead was reading it to compare it to “The Elenium” and decide which of the two I liked better. So I would say that I found the series entertaining and would read it for fun, but the entertainment factor was muted a bit by comparing it to “The Elenium” and seeing which of the two I preferred.

And my overall assessment is this: “The Elenium” is more personal, while “The Tamuli” is more epic, which might also match the difference in scope between “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”. If you want to think of the works focusing on Sparhawk as Eddings redoing those first two series right, there’s plenty of evidence to consider that the case. I really liked the addition of the other races/kingdoms/civilizations, and the added focus on politics was welcome to me. And I think that Eddings does a good job of weaving the expanded cast into the work so that it doesn’t seem to be taking too much away from the purported main cast. However, I think it also risks making things a bit overly complicated at times, and I miss the more personal, focused story that we got in “The Elenium”.

And for some reason, Eddings’ emphasis on the female characters and their abilities grated on me for some reason. Part of this is likely the current context, where strong female characters showing up male characters is overly emphasized to the point of extreme annoyance. But a big part of it is indeed how they often break characterizations of both themselves and the men to make that point. Aphrael was always going to be a bit of a Mary Sue given that she’s a god, but the “little girl” act makes it more grating, especially when she does it in her Danae guise. Sephrenia ends up blaming Vanion for being too slow to make up with her even though it was her utterly irrational reactions that made him afraid in the first place. Her having to make the first move because of that works, but her having to essentially blame it on him didn’t. But the worst is probably Melidere’s pursuit of Stragen, where she lets him in on her criminal schemes and then says that either he has to marry her or else she’ll have him killed. This is despite the fact that he probably liked her and that earlier she was talking about what signals to send. “Marry me or die” is not a signal, but somehow we’re supposed to consider this the appropriate and reasonable approach. Yeah, right.

The Atans are also altogether far too impressive for the role they had in the story, and are talked up far too much for that to work. And since the most competent of them were women, it feeds back into that same dynamic. As does Xanetia. For too much of the work, Xanetia, Mirtai and Sephrenia run roughshod over everyone else, with Aphrael there to fall back on when they aren’t available for some reason.

Ultimately, however, this can be overlooked, as the rest of the work is pretty good. But at the end of the day, I think “The Elenium” is my favourite of these series.

Folding Ideas’ “Thermian Argument”

August 4, 2017

So, while reading the comments on a post about the new female Doctor, someone linked this video from “Folding Ideas” about the “Thermian Argument”, which is in its roughest form an argument against criticizing part of a work because it is consistent with the universe that it is in. As you might expect, the main examples are of typical Social Justice type situations. The specific example used in the beginning is that someone is watching an anime and finds the constant depictions of Orks raping and brutally murdering female characters disturbing, especially given the presumed frequency of those scenes and how long those scenes go on for. The reply is that the Orks were established as being like that, and so the work is just showing us what their established behaviour is, and I will go no more into what the typical response would be because the original video doesn’t really do that and it’ll be more important as a counter later.

So, let me go into the video’s actual argument. The argument is that things like consistency and purity aren’t relevant to fictional worlds because they are fictional, and thus don’t really exist. For all of the time he spends talking about it, what he never manages to do is, well, make this an actual argument that has any heft to it whatsoever. Yes, fictional worlds are not real worlds, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have rules and that it doesn’t establish any kind of “objective truth” that writers need to hew to. To take his example of how to kill a vampire, he at the start asks how to kill one, and then at the end insists that it is irrelevant because vampires are fictional and so there is no objective way to kill them. Which is in some sense true, as different works may use different means to kill them. However, what we are talking about is consistency in-universe, and in-universe there will be established means to kill vampires. If the writer wants to suddenly make one of those means not work on a particular vampire, they are going to need to explain why in this case it doesn’t even though it was established that it would, indeed, kill a vampire. If it doesn’t, then what we have is a hack writer who is essentially “breaking the rules” in order to tell the story they want to tell, but can’t either find a way to make that work given those constraints or isn’t willing to compromise their vision in order to be consistent with the universe they’re writing in.

But, the reply can go, does that even matter? Well, yes, it really, really does. In order to get engrossed into a work, we have to accept that the events in the universe are, in fact, really happening. Part of that is understanding how, in fact, the universe works, which means knowing what the rules are. Thus, the writer needs to set expectations for us so that we can, well, know what to expect and so don’t start questioning everything that happens. So if a writer wants to have magic, they need to establish that magic exists in the universe, and ideally wants to set up as much as possible — without boring the audience with technical explanations — what it can do so that the audience doesn’t spend their huge dramatic character moments wondering if magic can really do that. Once we understand the rules of magic, anything consistent with that will be just ignored, allowing for the writer to just presume that we accept it and then be able to use it to drive things like plot, drama, and characterization. This even — and perhaps especially — holds if there are no set rules. If that’s established, then we stop looking for rules and just accept that anything that needs to happen will happen, and that it won’t happen when it needs to not happen. Since this still tends to kill drama — because the audience will simply expect a solution to appear when it needs to and so won’t be wondering if the hero can get out of this jam — it has to be handled very carefully as well.

What this all means is that if a writer starts breaking the established rules of a universe, people will notice. This will break immersion and require the writer to have a good explanation for why the rule was broken before they can be re-immersed into the universe. What a writer really wants to avoid is for the audience to start evaluating their work from a third-person perspective and opposed to feeling like they are observing an actual world. And in order to do that, they need to establish expectations and avoid violating those expectations without proper reasons and set-up. To return to the Ork example, if the expectation is built up that they would act that way, showing them acting differently would break immersion. That being said, that reply wouldn’t work against an argument that stated that they don’t need to spend so much time showing that, since we aware of it and will write it in if it isn’t explicitly shown, and that time might be better spent establishing other things.

At any rate, the main issue here is that in his Ork example the initial and more reasonable response isn’t the one he cites here. It is instead a simple “The maybe this work isn’t for you and you shouldn’t watch it”. If a work wants to be brutal and so focus on brutality in many scenes, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that some people are not going to want to watch that sort of thing. And that’s fine. But we see in the video that he describes the real criticism as being a criticism of the choices the writers made, and here we can see the real objection in his example: he thinks that showing this brutalization of women is really there for no other reason than to brutalize women, which is bad. But this, then, takes the counter-argument to a completely different place than he accepts and argues against. The counter-arguments, in general, for such things — if made properly — would be along the lines of arguing that either a) this is a brutal universe and brutalization is shown consistently (implying that his objection is only to the brutalization of women for out-of-context reasons and, likely, personal ideology) or b) that the scenes are necessary to establish and remind the audience of just how brutal the Orks actually are. Both of these can be debated, of course, but none of them can be debated by arguing “This is a fictional world so we don’t need to follow the rules of the universe!” All of them require looking at the work and what the writer was trying to do and show either that what the writer is trying to do is wrong, or that they are going about what they are trying to do the wrong way. So, yes, you can criticize the choices of the writer, but doing so isn’t as simple as the video makes it seem. You can indeed invalidly criticize the choices of the writer, and the video’s defense of doing so doesn’t work for any of those cases.

This is essentially Sarkeesian’s comment that the world is fictional and so the writer can do whatever they want, which is a really bad argument, because the writer can’t afford to violate expectations too often without ruining the work. If the writer is trying for historical accuracy, then criticizing them for not including minorities in roles they would never have had in that timeframe is criticizing their goal, which is almost always not valid. And this holds even if they add some fantastical elements to their work; just because some parts don’t conform doesn’t mean that the parts that do can be simply changed without consequence. While the video insists that talking about consistency shuts down discussion, the reply actually does that even more so, because it refuses to engage with the universe at all and instead puts all of the discussion outside of the work itself, allowing no arguments that it would hurt the work itself or wouldn’t fulfill the purpose of the work. That it’s actually at best incomplete and at worst invalid is just the icing on the cake.

Yes, a simple reply of “This is consistent with the universe” is not enough to invalidate a criticism of a problematic scene. But a reply of “Fictional works don’t have to be consistent” is not enough to invalidate that defense and is in fact entirely false.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Elenium”

July 31, 2017

So, working my way through the David Eddings series that I actually liked — I think I tried reading one of “The Dreamers” and disliked it — I’ve just finished re-reading “The Elenium”. Remember, this — possibly along with “The Tamuli” — was my favourite of the series when I first read them, and this time after reading them back-to-back I was deliberately trying to compare them. And after doing so, my conclusion is … “The Elenium” is indeed significantly better than “The Belgariad” and “The Malloreon”.

One of the reasons, I think, is because it’s three books instead of five. It’s a bit shorter — looking at the collected books themselves, I’m not sure it’s that much shorter than the Belgariad, although it is definitely shorter than the Malloreon — and being only three books means that he doesn’t need to have as many reasonable endings to build towards to end that book on a high note that can be picked up in the next one. So, overall, the story can flow more and doesn’t have as much extraneous content.

Another reason is that for the most part the main cast is small and pretty much stays together for the entire series. Yes, he uses the tired old excuses of “The Younger Gods like symmetry!” to explain it, but we don’t have as many characters moving in and out of the story as we saw in the other works. That lets us get more used to the characters and so feel more attached to them, as well as allows him to elevate them above being simple stereotypes and archetypes. Also, when the characters do move out of the story they usually aren’t doing anything that important, allowing us to remain focused on Sparhawk and the other more main characters and so develop their plots and characterization without undue interruption. This means that pretty much all of the characters are more interesting and more developed than they were in the previous series.

Additionally, they don’t have the super-powerful, god-like characters of the previous series. Sparhawk is the main character, but while skilled he isn’t really a super-powerful, chosen-by-destiny character. Yes, they hint here that he is Anakha and so is outside of destiny, but in this series that’s mostly meaningless, other than that essentially he’s destined to be the guy who wields Bhelliom and probably because of that no one can tell what he will do with it. But Bhelliom here is a tool, not a presence. Sparhawk is skilled but no more overwhelming than any other magic-using knight would. The most powerful “normal” character is Sephrenia, and while she is very knowledgeable and very skilled at magic — and, again, very long-lived — she doesn’t know a lot of things and in general needs protection from physical attacks, unlike Belgarath and Polgara. Sparhawk is the person who is doing most of the investigation, and he doesn’t have a lot of advantages to make that all that much easier. The most powerful regular character is Aphrael, but she doesn’t do that much and really tends to act a lot like a Deus ex Machina most of the time. What this does is allow us to relate more to the characters because they are far more like normal people than most of those in the previous series.

This characterization also carries over to the villains. All of them are far better characterized than the villains in any of the previous series. As I’ve commented before, in “The Belgariad” Torak is the main villain and his henchmen mostly asides, but Torak isn’t developed enough for us to feel any pity for him at all, even though at the end we’re clearly supposed to. Ghwerig is only a minor villain, and yet in one short scene Eddings does more to get us to feel pity for his loneliness than he managed for Torak. While Azash is the god stand-in for Torak, the main antagonist is Martel, and his ending where Sparhawk finally kills him but Martel comments that he dies in the company of the only two people he ever really cared about is both emotional and fitting for that character.

Also, the quest structure and the dropping of specific prophecies to follow actually allows Eddings to work in those little side events that he loves so much more naturally. He can easily divert Sparhawk to rescue a besieged patriarch because while restoring Ehlana is important to the world, it’s not seen as being the one thing that can save it, and so it is easy to convince Sparhawk that while he has strong personal reasons for putting Ehlana’s life first, sometimes the at least seemingly “greater good” is to put that aside for some time and so other things. And since for most of the first two books they have no idea what they need to do to save Ehlana, they can chase all sorts of dead ends that serve no real purpose other than to do things that Eddings wants to do. In the previous series, it seems like an irrelevant distraction. Here, it not only seems less like that, but we can definitely feel that Sparhawk feels the same way, but has very good reasons to stop and do it.

And it also gets far more into politics than the previous series do. Yes, this is one that definitely appeals more to me personally than it does to others — after all, I also really like the political scenes in the Star Wars EU — but I loved the politics around electing the head of the Church and how all of that played out, and even wish it could have been longer.

That being said, I can see how some people might prefer the previous series because this one is far less “fantastical” than they were. The main religion is pretty much some form of Christianity, with the Church politics being modeled, it seems, a lot on Catholicism. The realms are very similar to standard medieval realms that we are all familiar with. The Styrics and the prejudice against them remind me a lot of the Jews. Thus, all of this is very, very familiar, whereas the history and institutions of the previous series were quite different. This also means that the previous series had a much deeper and more interesting lore than “The Elenium” does. So I can totally understand if someone finds “The Elenium” to be a bit pedestrian when compared to the previous series.

Also, I had thought that “The Elenium” and “The Belgariad” were quite different in story structure, but on reflection they actually aren’t. The first part of both is going out and finding the super-powerful jewel that they had lost and the second part is taking that jewel and going out to destroy the menacing god who is invading to try to get it. But I still think “The Elenium” just handles that so much better overall than “The Belgariad” did, with more interesting characters and a more interesting path to doing those two things.

Next, I’m reading “The Tamuli”, which I will also compare to the other works.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “Polgara the Sorceress”

July 10, 2017

“Polgara the Sorceress” isn’t as good a book as “Belgarath the Sorcerer” was. And I think there are a number of reasons for why this is:

1) Most of the really big events were covered in at least historical detail in Belgarath the Sorcerer. Thus, all there really is for Polgara the Sorceress to do is fill in Polgara’s personal impressions and situation. But this means that we’re going over events that we’ve already gone over in detail again — and again, in some detail — just to add Polgara’s personal impressions to them. But unless you’re a huge Polgara fan, it doesn’t add that much to them. Things get a lot better when they start filling in the details of the things Polgara did while Belgarath wasn’t around — like what happened in Vo Wacune and Arendia — but those segments are too short and too few and far between to save the book. And this is a worse flaw because the two books aren’t really standalone. The framing of Polgara the Sorceress is that Polgara is filling in the details that Belgarath the Sorcerer left out — and often Polgara pokes at Belgarath for simply leaving details out. But despite having read the two books pretty much one right after the other I didn’t really notice any glaring omissions except for the things that Belgarath himself didn’t know. Thus, the framing is both underused and guarantees that everyone will remember the other book first and pretty much note that they should read it first before reading this one. I’m not certain, but I think that there will be places where a reader is confused or feels that something has been left out if they read Polgara the Sorceress before Belgarath the Sorcerer. Thus, you can’t just read Polgara the Sorceress, but reading Belgarath the Sorcerer first will make Polgara the Sorceress seem ponderous and repetitive.

2) The book actually damages Polgara’s character as described in Belgarath the Sorcerer, particularly with how it uses Poledra. In Belgarath the Sorcerer, Polgara was gifted and had a mind that worked in a certain way that allowed her to do certain great feats. In Polgara the Sorceress, much of the time that great skill came from Poledra tutoring her on it secretly. Thus, she didn’t pick it up quickly, but instead had already learned it by the time it came for her to be taught it. At the Battle of Vo Mimbre, the long-standing idea that Polgara had managed to resist Torak’s will which impacted him greatly had nothing to do with her, but was instead only Poledra. If it had been the case that Polgara herself screamed in defiance but that she needed the intimate connection with Poledra to buttress her will and allow her to not have to face Torak “alone”, that would be one thing, but instead Poledra shuffles Polgara out of the way and takes over herself. This makes Polgara a spectator in her most famous event and removes the strongest display of her character in the entire series. After the fall of Vo Wacune, Belgarath the Sorcerer implies that Polgara fell into a great and angry despondency, similar to that of Belgarath when Poledra “died”, which provided an interesting parallel and gave them something in common, a common experience that they could at least arguably build on. Instead, she was pretending to be that way while secretly planning her revenge an organizing the war back in Sendaria/Erat. This a major plot hole because if Belgarath and the others because she acts as if she had to hide that from them, but if they really cared they’d have almost certainly been able to detect her scheming or at least would have paid attention to what was happening back in Arendia and noted her influence. So either they didn’t really care — at which point she didn’t have to hide it — or they did care but then didn’t bother to keep track of her well-enough to catch her influence (and Belgarath the Sorcerer implies that their greatest concern was that she didn’t try to will herself out of existence). But on top of that, Polgara had lost a city that was very important to her and, as she thought at the time, the love of her life … and she’s able to plan an elaborate deception of her father and uncles while coordinating a brilliant battle plan to get revenge? Doesn’t seem like she cared all that much about them, did she? Over and over, events make Polgara less skilled, less complex and less interesting a character.

3) All that there really is to the book is Polgara’s personal impressions, but Polgara isn’t all that interesting a character. Most often, she’s an opinionated bully. Sure, Belgarath is a bully, too, but for him most of the time he bullies people to get the job done so that, mostly, he can get back to doing the things that he really, really wants to do. He admits that he’s lazy and unscrupulous and has numerous flaws, and in general is a more interesting and humourous character to follow. Polgara is often dreadfully serious and seems to have no actual serious flaws, and never really seemed to grasp the import of the Events except perhaps when she was raising the heirs … which is given fairly short shrift in the book. Polgara and Ce’Nedra are both always described as characters that the others make a strong effort to avoid offending, but lots of people are willing to offend Belgarath all the time. Thus, she comes across as a full-on bully: do what I want or else. That’s not an interesting character to follow, and especially when we already know most of the historical details and so there’s little new there to discover. ‘Grat is not nice, but he cops to it. Polgara doesn’t.

At the end of the day, the book wasn’t a waste to read, but reading it right after Belgarath the Sorcerer really, really hurts it, as it has nothing to offer but Polgara, who is not that interesting a character to start with and is undermined by the work itself. For the most part, you could stop after Belgarath the Sorcerer and not really miss much.

Next up: The Elenium and The Tamuli.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “Belgarath the Sorcerer”

July 3, 2017

So, as I’m sure I’ve said before, I plan on working through all of my David Eddings books, and while I’m doing that I might as well finish them. I’m concluding my re-reading of the Garion works with “Belgarath the Sorcerer” and “Polgara the Sorceress” before moving on to the series that I liked the best, which are the Sparhawk works (The Elenium and the Tamuli).

Belgarath the Sorcerer is a “and now you know the rest of the story” work. It’s even explicitly set up as such as the framing of the work is that Ce’Nedra wants to know the rest of the story and manipulates Belgarath into telling it, with the help of various others. And as that sort of work, it really does work. It fills in a lot of the details and backstory around what happened, filling in a bit of the lore and giving it more life, while still keeping the style of the original works. Telling it from Belgarath’s perspective really adds to the work, as it allows for a more personal perspective on events that we had only previously heard about from a more dry historical perspective, and keeps it from being a dull recitation of things that happened. The book is long, but like pretty much everything Eddings has done in this series it moves along quickly so it never really seems like a drag.

The book would be absolutely meaningless and uninteresting if you haven’t already read the Belgariad and the Malloreon, but after having read them it does well to fill in some of the gaps in an interesting way.

Next up: Polgara the Sorceress.

Thoughts After Re-Reading the Malloreon

June 26, 2017

So, I finished re-reading the Malloreon. As expected, as the quest shifted away from simply chasing Zandramas and instead trying to fulfill the necessary conditions for their “side” to win, things went a lot better. Unfortunately, though, a lot of the things that happened in that quest seemed a bit pointless. There were only a few real plot points to chase in the quest, and the rest seemed like doing things because Eddings wanted to do them, not so much because they were important overall. The “repetition of events” part particularly suffers from this, because often it seems like the events happen only to support the idea of repetition, and not because they fit into the story as a reasonable and necessary repetition.

It also suffers because Zandramas is an utterly uninteresting antagonist. Both Urvon and Agachak have more interesting backgrounds and a better link to the main characters and overall plot, and yet they only appear as hindrances to the main characters and as potential hindrances to Zandramas despite ultimately being no real threat to anyone. And Zandramas’ constant attempts to circumvent the choice just ended up being really annoying. She’s not particularly powerful, clever, or even has an interesting personality to play off of. They don’t really interact with her on any level until the end — there are a few short scenes before that — and she has no real history. Facing her at the end is utterly anti-climactic, and that could have worked if after the final skirmish she had accepted her role and waited for the choice — and so faded out of the story — but instead they are constantly defending against her schemes. This even hurts the final choice because it wasn’t established what the big choice was and it is implied that Zandramas attempts to influence Cyradis’ mind and thus make her doubt what the choice ought to be, which is a really shallow way to have the choice be in doubt. And given how much Zandramas cheats and how evil the Dark Spirit is supposed to be, there’s really no reason for Cyradis to be wondering about the choice, especially after traveling with Garion for so long. There is a hint that evil might pretend to be good, but the evil side is flat-out evil and Garion and Eriond are obviously good, so that doesn’t work. There’s a hint that the choice is a problem because Cyradis, for the first time, can’t rely on looking into the future to settle it, but that’s glossed over so quickly that it really doesn’t add to the choice at all.

That being said, I think the side characters and discussions are better here. Zakath is an interesting character and foil/companion for Garion, Sadi and Zith are interesting, and the Silk/Velvet interaction is interesting . Beldin and Belgarath get into some interesting banter, although at times it seems out of place since what they are really interested in is other things, and so it’s a distraction. But simply reading parts of it works really well.

At the end of the it all, despite the flaws, it’s better than pretty much all of the works I read in my Hugo Award analysis (parts of the Imperial Radch trilogy work as well as things in the series, but overall this one is still better). But the real question is: which of the Belgariad and the Malloreon do I now find to be the better work? There are definitely parts of the Malloreon that I like better, and it seemed less rushed at the end, but then again it seemed to use the extra length poorly, making things seem to drag and be irrelevant. I really like the lore parts of the Belgariad, which are missing in the Malloreon. At this point, my conclusion is … neither. I can see why someone might prefer one over the other, but it seems to me that they are both good and bad in different ways, mostly, despite having similar styles, the same characters, and similar stories. I’d re-read them both again, but they both have serious flaws.

Re-Reading the Malloreon

June 19, 2017

So, after re-reading the Belgariad, I have now moved on to re-reading the Malloreon. I was really interested in seeing what my impressions of the Malloreon were this time, because I remembered liking it better than the Belgariad — although, again, it wasn’t my favourite Eddings series — and I wanted to see if, this time, that impression would hold up.

The beginning was … disappointing. It started with the same kind of homey, simple life establishing the relationships and the basic story line like the Belgariad — focusing on Eriond for part and Belgarion’s being a king and his various issues around that — but a lot of the time that seemed dull and problems seemed to be invented for the sake of having some kind of problem to deal with, so they could explore the characters (like the incident in Arendia and the problems between Belgarion and Ce’Nedra). Admittedly, the early parts of the Belgariad weren’t particularly riveting either, but I think it had two main advantages. The first is that it was our introduction to the characters, and learning about them could be used to hold our interest. In the Malloreon, we pretty much already knew the characters except for Eriond, and Eriond is not a particularly interesting character, although he’s likable enough. The second reason is that the Belgariad was also filling us in on a lot of the lore of the world, which I personally found interesting and intriguing. Again, that’s already mostly been done for us in the Malloreon, and the new parts are part of the big mystery of the work, and so aren’t really explored early in the series. So the first part, up until they start on their big quest, seemed to drag for me.

Once the quest gets going, though, I still think I like it better than the Belgariad’s quest. It’s more focused, and doesn’t have anywhere near as many side issues as we had during the Belgariad. Also, for the most part it’s dealing with one overarching mystery and quest that’s already set out, unlike the Belgariad’s quest to find the Orb mixed in with finding the king and and his wife and then setting off again to find Torak. By the time the introduction stops dragging, we know that they have to find Geran and head off to another confrontation with a Child of Dark. Also, the main personalities of the characters are established and so Eddings adds a couple of new characters to the mix, which makes things different but still allows us to think of Silk as Silk, for example.

However, I’m just at the end of the third book and the quest really seems like it’s starting to drag itself. The problem is that the entire third book doesn’t really seem like it actually does anything, or anything interesting. If Eddings had really positioned it as “They’re hunting for Geran and get caught up in this demon thing because they need Zakath on their side and he can’t leave due to the plague”, then it might have worked, but as it is the plague seems to be mostly irrelevant at this point, a plot point introduced to move the plot along and add a minor inconvenience, and the demon sub-plot, while related to the main plot, is something they get dragged into rather than something they have to take on directly. Add to that that Ce’Nedra’s and Garion’s manipulation by Zandramas is old hat at this point and so doesn’t really add any drama, and I was really wondering what the point of all of this really was, other than to extend the work. On top of that, Zandramas faces off with Garion a couple of times in the quest but every time the confrontation is totally anti-climactic: a minor battle in dragon form, a confrontation that Cyradis heads off, and at the very end of the third book a confrontation that Poledra heads off. The confrontations seem to add little, and for the most part keep driving home that nothing can happen in those confrontations because at least Zandramas risks losing, as does Garion. So why keep having them face each other if nothing can come of it? At least the cat and mouse game where Zandramas tries to delay or mislead them and Belgarath and the others have to work around that would be interesting, if it actually focused on that. But even the thing that most angered Belgarath — cutting out the relevant sections of the book he needed to find out what was going — wasn’t actually Zandramas’ doing, but was instead Torak’s. Thus, the main villain of the work has really done little if anything to impede her enemies and to seem like an actual threat, other than her having Garion’s son.

That being said, up until the last quarter or so of the third book I was indeed enjoying the quest. It’s only there that I start feeling that we have artificial drama and problems, and that the chase seems to have gone on for far too long already. It might have been better if instead of having the Orb be able to track Zandramas, they instead had to try to chase her by finding clues and deciphering the prophecies that she was following. That way, the side events could be more easily woven into the story, and I wouldn’t feel like they’ve been chasing her specifically for far too long.

I’ll have to see what my feelings are on the work after reading the last two books.

Thoughts After Re-Reading “The Belgariad”

June 5, 2017

So, I recently finished re-reading “The Belgariad” by David Eddings. What I found was that the work was interesting and generally entertaining, but that the end seemed both rushed and to drag, which is a marvelous achievement for an author [grin].

The reason, I think, is that we had a relatively long, slow-paced, and lore-enriched opening quest, where Garion leaves the farm where he grew up and sets off with Polgara, Belgarath, and the rest to retrieve the Orb from Torak’s minions and return it to Riva, which then gets settled … and then almost immediately thereafter after some small plot events — the betrothal to Ce’Nedra, for example — Garion, Belgarath and Silk head out again for the final confrontation. Which is, as we all know, the main event driving the entire series, which means that it has the most importance of pretty much everything. Unfortunately, it can only involve a small number of characters and there isn’t really anything all that interesting to do in that quest; the whole point is for them to get to Torak as quickly and silently as possible, with as little fuss as they can. Throwing major obstacles at them would both pad out the length — and Eddings says in the intro to the Mallorean that there were length constraints on the Belgariad that were relaxed for the Mallorean — and start to get a little ridiculous given how few people they had; either Belgarath and Belgarion blast their way through all enemies, making the obstacles not obstacles, or else their problems would be ridiculously constrained to the non-magic skills that Silk, Belgarath and Garion happened to have.

So, to avoid this and to keep everyone else in the mix, Eddings instead seems to take a page from “The Lord of the Rings” and has Polgara, Ce’Nedra and the Western kings muster a large army to distract the enemy from Belarion and the others. Which isn’t a bad idea, but we know that this army is nothing more than a distraction, but it takes up a lot of space in the book without us finding out all that much that’s interesting. There are moments of humour and characterization, but they are few and far between and the battle itself is a bit anti-climactic given what its nature was. And, again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing but it seems to take up too much time relative to the important quest, which then gets short-shrift. And then having Polgara, Errand, Ce’Nedra and Durnik arrive at the final confrontation for reasons of Prophecy seems to make the battle scene even more pointless. All the really important stuff happens in the final confrontation, and so the details of and lead up to the battle seems like padding, while the part where they travel to the final confrontation seems like it just happens with little build-up or attention.

However, as I said, the book is still enjoyable. What Eddings does really well is build lore around the world, which is why he managed to squeeze two five book series and two prequels out of that world and that lore. The characters are generally archetypical but interesting, and fit into the world well. Eddings does manage to fit a good bit of humour into the work, which is nice.

I’m now re-reading “The Mallorean”.

Re-reading the Belgariad …

June 2, 2017

So, this comment in this post from Shamus Young resonated with me:

It has been bugging me for years: maybe the problem isn’t the games. Maybe it’s me.

Now, I never really had this for games, because with games I was generally able to like some and dislike some of both old and new games, and also because with games I was usually able to figure out and outline exactly where I felt the new games were going wrong and where the old games had gone right, leading to the conclusion that a lot of modern games really weren’t as good as older games, for all of their technical wizardry. I felt the same way about TV shows and movies, although I was a bit concerned about the fact that I rarely laughed out loud anymore, even at comedies (this was clearly broken when it came to “WKRP in Cincinnati”).

But after doing the Hugo Award Assessment, , and noting that the only books I really read were movie and TV show tie-ins, it did get me wondering if it was just nostalgia, or if the older books really were better than the newer ones. That was a reason to re-read “The Status Civilization”, after having already re-read Zelazny’s Amber series because I needed to remind myself of what happened in it for an Amber Diceless game that I was running. But in David Eddings’ “The Belgariad”, I faced my greatest test yet. Of the three series that he had completed when I started reading them — along with all of my friends in high school — the “Elenium” was my favourite. I also recalled trying to re-read it a year or so ago and finding it a bit clunky. So I was prepared for frustration when I read it, but needed stuff to read and wanted to go through all of the Eddings books — including “Belgarath the Sorcerer” and “Polgara the Sorceress”, which I definitely liked — to both keep my reading time occupied and to, well, re-read those series that I recalled liking at some point. So with trepidation I started reading it and …

… came to the conclusion that it was just really entertaining.

I’m not sure what changed. Maybe it just was my mind having that comparison to works that were incredibly clunky and boring that the minor issues with the “Belgariad” faded away. But, at any rate, it was far more enjoyable and worked so much better than any of the “Hugo Award” nominees, including the ones that the anti-Puppies really liked. And as far as I can tell it didn’t actually win any awards.

And it’s not like the series is male-dominated. One of the most powerful beings in the world is a woman, Polgara, and she’s actually presented as being more competent than Belgarath, even if he’s more powerful and more tricky. There tends to be a bit of a give and take between men and women in the series, even if men often take more than they probably should. So it’s not really male power fantasy either. It seems like a series that even the Social Justice side in fantasy could enjoy, so it’s not like I enjoy it because it avoids or rejects those lines.

So what’s good about it? The characters are entertaining, and the history is detailed and told in an interesting way. The plot is a little shaky, but the links to that deep history make up for that. The plot, then, fades into the background and instead is replaced by interesting characters walking their way through the history and, in fact, creating history themselves by fulfilling the prophecy. The world is properly detailed and we find out things about it when we need to and in interesting and compelling ways rather than it being a complete info dump for no reason. Sure, the introductory prologues could be seen as that, but that’s why it’s a prologue: it gives you the information you need to know in an interesting format if you like history.

So, so far, I’m pleasantly surprised. I’m enjoying reading it much more than I expected. And since I liked “The Mallorean” better — or, at least, remember it more fondly — this bodes well for my reading of everything Eddings did that I liked.