Monday, May 1, 2017

Castle of Wizardry

Castle of Wizardry
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fourth of five books in "The Belgariad," the title character Belgarion - known to his friends as Garion - gets the surprise that probably isn't a surprise to the discerning reader who has followed his adventures so far. With a prophecy living inside his head and a group of companions who have been mentioned in oracles since the beginning of time, Garion has already seen the Orb of Aldur reclaimed from the servants of the evil god Torak, who stole it millennia ago and used it to break the world. Now he just has to help his companions return it, and a certain troublesome Imperial Princess, to the throne room of the high king of the west in time for a mysterious event that is supposed to happen on a fast approaching holiday.

There are problems, though. The eternal man Belgarath has done a bit too much sorcery, and has become so desperately ill, it is questionable whether he will recover. Garion, who has only lately accepted that he himself is a sorcerer, has to step up his game to protect his friends, his Aunt Pol, and Errand, the innocent child who bears the orb, from the wrath of the Grolim magicians. The mad king Taur Urgas is hot on the company's heels with the Murgo army. The friends' flight down the Eastern Escarpment, approximately where Torak broke the world, brings them out into the west but not to safety, since their reinforcements are expecting them much farther north. But even bigger problems await Garion at the castle of Riva Iron-Grip, where - spoiler alert! - the sometime scullery boy from a remote farm is revealed to be the heir to Riva's long-broken line of kings.

That spoiler is worth it, because the dramatic revelation - a surprise to few besides Garion himself, I think - comes less than halfway through the book. Most of this book's wizardry, within the castle and without, happens after Garion finds out that he's the king of all the west. For he also finds out that all human life, in his world and beyond, depends on an awful task that remains for him, and him alone, to do. And though he is terrified of doing it, he realizes that he would best go about doing it as soon as possible - even if it means sneaking out of his own castle, against the wishes of Aunt Pol. Then, while Garion and two companions begin a perilous journey to face an enemy he seems hopeless to defeat, the rest of the west gathers its forces to wage an unwinnable war against vastly more numerous enemies, more or less as a diversion.

Some of this generalized description may sound familiar to those of you who have fed, drunk, breathed, and slept on The Lord of the Rings. The quest of Garion looks increasingly like that of Frodo, except that instead of having a ring that needs to be destroyed, he has a sword that might be able to kill a god - if anything can. The sober reality facing him is that there are really two prophecies in motion, and so far they're in a dead heat as to which one will end up ruling the destiny of all. In other words, Garion could kill Torak, or Torak could kill him; neither one can live while the other survives, etc. Oops! That came from Harry Potter! (Mind you, this book was published in 1984, when the fantasy genre was still relatively young and Harry Potter wasn't yet a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye.) Meantime, the roles played by the other characters in the prophecy - most notably Garion's betrothed queen, the Imperial Princess Ce'Nedra - are just as important in the greater scheme of saving the world.

This book leaves the quest well started up the slope of conflict and danger, toward its climax in Book 5, Enchanters' End Game. Besides the final crisis becoming a more and more serious and immediate undertaking, the whole canvas continues to grow more richly detailed, populated with interesting characters, and interwoven with complex agendas. But in a really engaging way, it distills everything down to a couple of simple, compelling gestures: (1) Boy sets out to destroy the evil god, knowing he has at best a 50/50 chance of victory, but driven by the knowledge everything depends on what he must do; and (2) Girl sets out to lead an army into a war that could destroy thousands of lives, although doing so tests her to the limits of her strength and beyond, because she loves the boy. Put that way, it isn't hard to see exactly what it is that makes this book stand out.

No comments: