There are pros and cons to audiobooks. On the plus side, they allow me to effectively “read” at work, listening to them on my iPod as I go about various tasks. But on the down side, it’s not possible to flick back a few pages to check whether you misunderstood something (trust me, after falling asleep whilst listening in bed, rewinding approximately an hour and a half trying to find where I remembered up to, was not a fun experience).
My aim is that recent books I will read, whilst those classics, those fantasy masterworks that embarrassingly slipped me by, will be listened to. That doesn’t strictly hold true as my selection is dictated by the books on offer via iTunes and their price (my next audio book is a Peter V Brett).
However one classic series that does meet both availability and price is David Eddings’ Belgariad series of books. I listened to Pawn of Prophecy earlier in the year and it left me still trying to find what the appeal of the series was.
Queen of Sorcery is the second in the series, and for me it was a book of two halves. The first half seems to go from episode to episode adding more people to our band of travellers, who seem to have a moment to shine the chapter after we first encounter them… and then do nothing. It reminded me a lot of a story I wrote when I was 8, a wind-in-the-willows-esque story of a coach that just drove around the countryside picking up all manners of animal folk, moving onto a new character whenever I tired of the current one.
Instead of focusing on development of characters such as Silk and Barack, Eddings instead brings in additional characters such as Hettar and Mandorallen who seem to offer nothing but make it more difficult to remember who everyone is. Other than Garrion, Polgara and Ce’Nedra, no-one really seems to grow in the novel. What’s the point of all these characters if they are just treading water?
As a result the first half of the novel feels like episodic padding, sprinkled with a little foreshadowing. There seems little threat, and it felt to me that numerous incidents in the first half of the novel could have been swapped around without much detriment to the plot.
But then Ce’Nedra turns up and things start to get interesting. After an age of Polgara teling Garrion “I will tell you what is going on but not now” shit starts to happen, and exciting it is when it does. It feels like the novel has kicked up a gear. Whilst I never felt that any of the characters were in real mortal danger, save for that one scene with Chamdar, it felt like the plot now had a direction..
One of the big issues I had with the book was Garrion. I love his relationship with his aunt and think this is one of the greatest strengths of the novel, but for me, Garrion never becomes a convincing 15 year old
I realise that if you’re going to write a coming of age story, you don’t need to go into all the nitty gritty, but there still needs to be an honesty. My problem was actually sparked by a section where Eddings handles this well. Garrion is bathing in the waterfall and Eddings says something like “Garrion enjoyed himself”. I remember making some very crass comment about what that actually meant to a fifteen year old boy, but I thought, intentional or not, it was clever how Eddings had left that open to interpretation, that it was down to the reader rather than the author. See, I told myself, sometimes it’s possible to be even subtler than just inferred.
But then the scene moves onto Ce’Nedra turning up, stripping off, and embarrassing Garrion. And this is where I had a problem.
You see abstinence seems a major theme in the novel, whether it be Garrion and his abilities, or his seduction by Salmissra. I have no problem with that, it’s a perfectly good theme to explore, and one where the morality still holds largely true. But if you’re going to explore those themes, I think you have to be honest, even if you are subtle.
There’s a brilliant bit right at the end of the novel where Polgara basically asks Garrion whether he had sex with the Nyissan Queen and phrases it such that the “sex” word is never mentioned – It’s something like “Don’t embarrass both of us by making me ask you outright.” That’s clever, dealing honestly with the subject whilst still not being blatant. I like that innocence to it.
But I have to ask what 15 year old would turn around and close their eyes whilst a girl of similar age, stripped off and bathed. Curiosity if nothing else would have you sneaking a peak – especially at 15, when your hormones are raging. Garrion didn’t even have an urge to look.
Had this book been written in the current age, Garrion would have been gay (not that there would have been anything wrong with that, I hasten to add) or would have impregnated the Queen, and I have to say that I think the innocence of the book might have been lost in the process. But as it is, it tries to address the issues whilst at the same time ignoring them or painting them into something stereotypical, slightly unreal – like some 1950s sex education video.
There’s a sense that sex is somehow wrong, it’s even hinted that something bad will happen if he does. Edding’s world is one wet dream away from cataclysm. For God’s sake Garrion, do not even think about nipples.
And I might joke, but this dishonesty jarred, made Garrion a little less three-dimensional.
Yet, I have to realise this book is almost 30 years old, and times have moved on. To judge it by the standards or sexual liberations we have today is unfair. I’m sure at the time it would have seemed quite progressive, but consider not fifteen years later Game of Thrones would be published where Daenerys Targaryen would have lost her first child by age 13. We’ve come a long way in those 15 years folks, and as a result Queen of Sorcery feels very dated.