So I’ve also been re-reading a lot on the Kindle, mostly revisiting fluffy favorites of my youth.

For the most part, this hasn’t been surprising and hasn’t generated much new to say. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is still as funny as it was the first thirty times I read it (if maybe not precisely as fresh). And Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man is just about exactly what you’d expect from mid-early Discworld (which is to say, pretty excellent, but not quite at the heights the series gets to later).

But then there’s David Eddings’ Belgariad and Mallorean quintets. Back when I was in junior high, these were some of my favorite books; but I haven’t read them since I was a wee lad. So obviously as an adult, I’m aware that their reputation isn’t all that great, and I was curious to see how bad they were, and if they really had the virtues that attracted me to them as a kid.

The answer turns out to be: pretty bad, but also yes.

They’re deeply infused with racism (in the “all members of Race X have Trait Y” sense, which is philosophically problematic and becomes more practically problematic when it is instantiated in the form of “all Murgos are slanty-eyed Easterners who are evil and cruel and have no redeeming qualities and their teeming hordes will fight against the good white men of the West”), and only slightly less-deeply infused with sexism (they have strong female characters, but there’s a lot of Mars ‘n’ Venus bullshit being flung around).

They have ridiculous travelogue plots whose events don’t necessarily have a lot of motivation other than “hey, the prophecy says we should go here, so let’s go here.” This is particularly awful in The Mallorean, where Eddings dropped even the fig leaf of having organic reasons for the plot to proceed — at just about every key event in that book, when the plot requires someone to do something ridiculous or stupid, the prophecy pops in as a literal character and is all “I require you to do this thing, so do it.” It is laughably transparent and unbelievable.

They’re also surprisingly slow books. The Belgariad takes a while to get going, but that’s epic-farmboy-destiny genre stuff — it’s not like Tolkien rushed Frodo out of the Shire, is it? — but The Mallorean takes it to absurd levels, with essentially the entire first volume serving as a prologue before the real book starts.

So, yeah, it’s pretty obvious why people think they’re bad. It’s because they are. But the thing is, I still enjoyed reading them, and I can’t 100% put my finger on why.

Part of it, no doubt, is the travelogue aspect — they really do go to every city on the map, and as broadly drawn and near-caricatured as the various societies are, it’s still fun to read about different societies in a fantasy novel. I’ve always thought of Dave Duncan’s Man of His Word series as being similar to the Belgariad, and I think this is why — both of them do that same world-traveler thing.

The other thing they’ve got going for them is a cast of characters who like each other, banter around, and just generally seem like they’d rather be together than not. This is a thing that was very common for a while (and is still a mainstay of D&D games, for obvious reasons), but which is actually rather rare in fiction these days. The Ocean’s Eleven movies are maybe one of the best examples of how appealing this can be.

And so anyway, if you somehow missed reading Eddings when you were a kid, should you read him now? Probably not. While I did like parts of these books, I have to admit that nostalgia is another big reason for their attraction to me, and clearly they are not objectively that good. So I recommend that you instead follow that link to the Dave Duncan books and read those instead, which have most of the virtues of Eddings’ books (plus many of their own) and few of the faults.


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