Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Belgariad [3] Magician's Gambit (1983)

In this third volume of The Belgariad, the party continues their quest for the Orb of Aldur, eventually journeying into the mountainous waste of Cthol Murgos to retrieve it.  This book is pretty good, because we explore more of Garion's sorcerous powers and things get a bit darker in tone with the party going through places like Maragor (a haunted land), Ulgoland (an underground city in the mountains, with many "monsters" in residence on the surface around it) and Cthol Murgos (home of the Murgos, one of the Angarak races, and Angaraks are bad mmkay).
Before you continue:
  • This is part 3 of my The Belgariad and The Malloreon retrospective
  • See this blog post for an overview of the retrospective
  • These blogs are most effective with your own re-read of both series

General Thoughts

As usual, there are no surprises regarding the story in this volume if you've been paying attention so far and you know your fantasy tropes.  Zedar went into Cthol Murgos with the Orb, and Ctuchik, high priest of the Grolims (Angarak sorcerers, who are generally weak) stole it from him and now has it in the fortress city of Rak Cthol.  Zedar and Ctuchik are two of the God Torak's disciples.  The third, Urvon, lives on the Mallorean continent across the Sea of the East and doesn't appear in the storyline until the next series, The Malloreon.

In the last book Garion made the transition from child to teenager.  In this book he learns a lot more about his power, particularly the realization that he can do and understand very complicated magic tasks much easier than Belgarath or any of the others.  He jumps into things without thinking about consequences, and this can be attributed to his age more than anything.

We are now at the midpoint of The Belgariad, and usually middle books in a series can feel incomplete, but this one's a good book with a strong beginning and end, and soon you realize that the thrust of the series is not just about the recovery of the Orb, which began the whole thing.  That's merely the Prologue, or Part One, so to speak, when you look at all 10 books in both series.

The Omnibus

Related to that, they did an omnibus reissue of The Belgariad a number of years ago, and split it into two trade paperback volumes. The split was 1-3 and 4-5. So Part One ends with this volume, which is a good ending place, considering it ends the quest for the Orb.

Alternate cover of Part One, because the American
ones just reuse the Schwinger images.  Belgarath
looks like Gandalf here, even though he doesn't
have a long beard or smokes a pipe.

You can see more omnibus covers here.  There's one set (shown below) that totally looks like it belongs to The Lord of the Rings.  Part One is reminiscent of the Fellowship riding at night, Part Two makes me think of the Rohan charge at Minas Tirith.  Eddings said that Tolkien's long-lasting success is what prompted him to try fantasy, so it's no surprise you can find allusions here and there, or that artists unconsciously echo that material.  I think all fantasy writers do, at some level.  It's hard to get away from the archetypes Tolkien popularized, much like it's hard to get away from the Hero's Journey in any adventure story.

History Prologues

In this series, Eddings used prologues as a means of telling some important backstory for events that relate to each novel.  I'm mixed on them, because sometimes they can be boring to read, like a history text - but if you don't tell it there, you have to cleverly relate the history in the narrative (like with Belgarath as the Storyteller in Pawn of Prophecy).  Very little fantasy uses prologues like this anymore.  It's another cliche that's been done to death and I wouldn't be surprised if publishers today rejected out of hand any manuscript that starts with the typical history prologue.

In Pawn of Prophecy, the prologue told of the creation of the world and the races, how the Gods chose races, the theft of the Orb by Torak, how it maimed him and he Cracked the World (The Wheel of Time, anyone?), and the ultimate retaking of the Orb by Belgarath.  Since the story was just beginning, this prologue laid the foundation.

For Queen of Sorcery, the prologue told of the Battle of Vo Mimbre, when Torak and his army of Angaraks made war upon the West, culminating at the city of Vo Mimbre in Arendia, where Brand the Rivan Warder defeated Torak and essentially put him in a coma by revealing the Orb to him.  Our party journeys through Vo Mimbre in that book and since Torak is still asleep during our series, it's necessary background.

Now in Magician's Gambit, we get the story of the Ulgos, one of the races we'll encounter.  UL is essentially the Father of the Gods, and all the leftover humans and monsters (that the seven Gods created and tossed aside as failed experiments) beseeched him to become their god.  Eventually he did.

Future prologues follow the same pattern, so get used to them.  Eddings used them in pretty much every fantasy he (or his wife) wrote.

Book Excerpts

In addition to the traditional history prologues, another thing that's seemed to have gone to wayside in recent years is the "excerpt" on the very first page, just inside the front cover. All of the Del Rey books back then had them. It would be a scene from the book, usually abridged, used to generate buying interest, I suppose.  Here's the one from Magician's Gambit:

Did they really work?  I guess so, or I suppose they wouldn't have done them.  But they weren't a draw for me.  I didn't like them mainly because they would be abridged.  And I was always more interested in the summary blurb on the back of each novel.  This is something else that has changed over time as well; a lot of Tor paperbacks have no summary blurb on the back.  Only the hardbacks do, on the dust jacket tabs.

Excerpts in the book itself seem somewhat useless today.  A good many potential readers now learn about a book through the internet.  That's how I find new works and authors these days.  Never do I stand in the bookstore for a half an hour anymore, browsing, looking for something interesting, buying a book solely on cover art, excerpts, summaries or review quotes.  I learn about it elsewhere and most times just order it online (or download it immediately for my Kindle).

The Cover

Again a scene from the end of the book is featured on the cover, this time the encounter with Ctuchik at Rak Cthol.  They find the child (Errand) whom Zedar used to steal the Orb, and Belgarath and Ctuchik confront each other in a sorcerous battle that's kind of ho-hum since Ctuchik inadvertantly destroys himself.

When I was young I thought the old man on the cover was Belgarath. I don't know why, I just did. But now I know it's Ctuchik, and I suppose the horror on his face (kinda looks like horror, maybe?) is his reaction to seeing Garion come so close to touching the Orb. He knows what that means, though Garion doesn't yet. That fear is what leads to his undoing.

The background has the requisite map of the book's journey, featuring Ulgoland, the Vale of Aldur and Rak Cthol in the bottom-right corner (looking much higher than I imagined it).  The silhouette this time is a mask, which one can assume is the Grolim mask since it looks quite evil.  I also like the choice of color - the reddish tinge to everything.  Fits well in the locations of the book (mountains and desert/wasteland), signals danger and allows the brillant blue of the Orb to pop out.


Our Let's-Stop-At-Every-Country-And-Region tour continues with Maragor, which is not a country proper, but a region.  Technically it's part of Tolnedra now, but Eddings splits it out for the story.  The Marags were one of the seven original races, chosen by the God Mara.  They were an odd culture: 8 out of every 9 births were female, they practiced cannibalism and had an odd construction sense (Mar Amon, their ruined city, is laid out in a spiral - this is attributed to the fact there are so many females in the race, and they think in circles vs. males who think in straight lines... or so they say).

The Marags were annihilated by the Tolnedrans centuries ago because there was abundant gold in their land, and as we know from the last book, Tolnedrans can be very greedy - so much so that they felt the need to commit genocide.  Mara grew quite upset and decided after that that no one would have the gold.  He haunts the place now, eternally crying in Mar Amon, and anyone venturing in looking for gold goes mad.

Garion and company were originally headed to the Vale of Aldur, but are forced to cut through Maragor because Murgos are on their trail.  How convenient.  Belgarath and Polgara put them all to sleep so they won't go mad, but Garion awakes and sees everything, unfazed by the ghosts.

Oh, and there's no ruler of Maragor, but they do stop by and talk to Mara, the weeping god (as shown in the above book excerpt), and it's His land, so Garion's streak of meeting the ruler of each land is still alive.  This is also the second god he's met, after Issa in Queen of Sorcery.

The Vale of Aldur

The Vale is another region, technically the southern tip of Algaria, surrounded by mountains.  It's a peaceful place where the god Aldur lived and where Belgarath, Polgara and the other disciples of Aldur make their home.  Not much happens here aside from meeting Aldur, checking out Belgarath's towers and Garion learning some more about sorcery.  Oh, and meeting a few more major characters.

There is Beldin, another sorcerer and disciple of Aldur, an ugly hunchback of a man with a foul mouth.  Beldin has been keeping watch over Torak's comatose body for the last five hundred years, ever since the Battle of Vo Mimbre.

You also meet Beltira and Belkira, twin sorcerers that have the annoying habit of finishing each other's sentences.  They are throwaway characters and I've never found them that interesting.  They become important during the war in Book 5, Enchanter's End Game, but that's about it.

Since there is no ruler in the Vale aside from Aldur, Garion's Ruler Streak continues with the meeting of Aldur by default.  That also brings the God Count to three.


Ulgoland is somewhat of a No Man's Land.  It's in the middle of the mountains between the west coast and inner plains, and filled with "monsters."  These come in a large variety, and are explained to be the failed results of the Gods' experiments back when the world was created.  Combined with the weather, it's a very treacherous country to cross.

The first portrait-style map!

It's also home to the Ulgos, a godless race of people (Aldur did not choose a race) who eventually were accepted by UL (Father of the Gods).  They retreated underground and now live in the caves beneath a mountain.  So long have they lived there that they can easily see in the dark, bright light hurts their eyes and the open sky frightens them.  Also, some Ulgos have the ability to move their bodies through solid rock and locate caves by divining.

The Ulgos are very holy and pretty much do nothing but worship UL.  We meet the Gorim, the ruler of the Ulgos (Ruler Streak) and UL Himself makes an appearance (God Count = 4).  The main party parts ways with Ce'Nedra (left in Ulgo for her safety) and Hettar (to warn the Western kings), but picks up a new member in Relg, an Ulgo zealot who can do the moving-through-rock thing.

That ability has inspired some stories and ideas for me over the years.  One is the short story Set Free the Sun in my collection called PracticingDon't know if Eddings was the first to come up with it, but I've always thought it was one of his more original fantasy ideas.

Cthol Murgos

Our last locale is the home of the Murgos, one of the five tribes of the Angaraks.  We only venture to Rak Cthol in the northern part, a city atop a high plateau that is the seat of the Grolims (the priests of Torak, who are weak sorcerers and one of the five tribes as well).  This is where the party finds Errand and the Orb.

They also find the last Important party member (in terms of prophecy): a slave girl named Taiba, who is actually descended from the Marags, whom we thought had been completely annihilated by the Tolnedrans.  But this is prophecy, our characters really don't have to worry about much... they find everyone they need to in due time.

Eddings keeps Cthol Murgos pretty mysterious, and not much is revealed during our brief time there.  At one point Belgarath says that they don't even know all the names of the cities in southern Cthol Murgos - which makes no sense, given that he's 7,000 years old and has surely travelled there during that time to "keep an eye on the Murgos."  He and the other sorcerers should know all the cities that exist.  I think that was a mistake on Eddings's part.  Either way, basically an entire book of The Malloreon (Book 2, King of the Murgos) takes place in southern Cthol Murgos, so more on that then.

We don't come anywhere close to the capital of Cthol Murgos, but as fortune would have it, their King - Taur Urgas - comes by a resupply station while our party is there.  How convenient!  Garion doesn't actually meet him because they sneak away, but they stay and watch from a distance, and I will count it.  And you thought the Ruler Streak would end here!  Tsk tsk.

The Sacrifices to Torak

It's not until this volume that we really learn what the Grolims do on a regular basis to instill fear within the Angarak society.  The series generally shrugs off violence and cruelty, with the warriors of our party vanquishing nameless enemies off-screen half the time, and doing it with glee.  We like our heroes and don't think much of it since we don't have an emotional connection to any of the worthless rabble that die here and there.

Eddings steps it up a notch in this book, though.  When they are sneaking through Rak Cthol, they go through one of the temples of Torak, and we finally see how the Angarak religion operates.  It's a religion based on fear, and they are the true power in the Angarak nations.  They regularly sacrifice their own people to Torak by bending them over an altar, cutting out the heart and burning it in a brazier.  Kind of like the Aztecs did.  Or what Mel Gibson said the Mayans did in Apocalypto (which is historically inaccurate, BTW):

It's fairly violent, but not particularly shocking because of how it's written.  It doesn't go into a lot of detail and sacrifices are always some nameless Thull (one of the Angarak tribes).  It doesn't have as much impact on the reader as it maybe should, but that seems intentional, given the audience at the time and the fact that mainstream fantasy back then (early 80's) was still in its infancy and pretty tame.

The Mistake

In closing, I want to mention the conversation that Garion and the Voice of Prophecy have during their trip through Maragor. The Voice clarifies what they are doing a little more.  At some point in the past, there was a mistake, something happened that wasn't supposed to, and ever since there have been two possible outcomes to the future of the Universe.  Because of this there are two prophecies (one that Belgarath / good guys follow and one that bad guys like the Angaraks and Torak follow) and one will eventually trump the other and rectify the mistake.

This probably explains why thousands of years have passed yet all the cultures have essentially remained the same, with little change or technological progress.  They are seemingly stuck until the mistake is fixed.  At least that's how I explain it to myself. 

Anyway, the mistake that happened eons ago hasn't been explained to the reader yet.  But this conversation doesn't jive because the Voice says that what Garion must do is the Most Important Thing Ever in the Universe.  Everything rests on him.  This is not true, however, since The Most Important Thing Ever occurs in The Malloreon (Cyradis making the Choice).  That's when one prophecy finally ends and the mistake is fixed.


Book 4 - Castle of Wizardry


Book 2 - Queen of Sorcery
Book 1 - Pawn of Prophecy

All maps by Shelly Shapiro

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