I’ll give The Eddings this much: “The Elder Gods” is an improvement over the disaster named “The Redemption of Althalus.” As you can imagine, though, I don’t think that’s saying very much.
What does this new book get right? Oddly enough, one of the improvements is that it doesn’t try so hard to be clever. Oh, you’ll recognize almost all of the catchphrases from earlier Eddings characters, but we’re not smothered in smirking repartee to nearly the level that “Althalus” reaches.
Another improvement is a step away from The Eddings Archetypes. That’s right, folks, there is no instantly-recognizable Polgara/Sephrenia-type character in the book! Now, I like Aunt Pol well enough, but seeing her casually reworked for each new story gets a bit tiring.
The last bit of good in this new series is the occasional hint of potential conflict between real characters some time down the road. This isn’t to say these hints will pay off, but it’s nice to think that this series may grow some actual fangs… eventually.
That brings us to the disappointing aspects of the book.
What we have here is a slightly better story told not entirely unlike that of “Althalus.” The chief differences are that there are more characters, and there’s no time travel involved. Oh, and the enemy’s even easier to hate. In fact, that’s among my biggest problems with this book. The baddies? Bug-snake-men. A giant swarming hive of ‘em. That’s right, folks, The Eddings are picking on a nice safe target instead of taking the risk that there may be actual moral qualms on the part of our intrepid heroes. This is a disturbing trend I’ve seen among a lot of recent genre works, this unwillingness to make actual people the antagonists. The only crisis is “the nasties are invading, we must stop them.”
Well, okay, there is a minor crisis of conscience late in the book… and it’s resolved within a chapter or so. Right. Remember when it took several books in the series for Garion to finally come to grips with his treatment of Asharak the Murgo? Yeah, there’s nothing like that here.
There’s another annoyance that you might not ordinarily think of as such. You see, everyone gets along. Very well. Extraordinarily well. Does this sound familiar to anyone? A diverse group of clever, intelligent, and overwhelmingly reasonable people who may find one another occasionally amusing but they all have “grudging” mutual respect? Have we been down this road a few times already? But this time it’s even better, because there’s multiples of everyone! We have two clever young lads who’d rather be doing something else but are forced by circumstances to take a larger role in things. We have two reluctant, moderately gifted, loyalty-inspiring leaders-of-men who are thrust into a campaign alongside what are normally mortal enemies but are so damned reasonable that they think almost nothing of it. We have four godlings, and four “dreamers” (of which the Aphrael-clone is one).
Okay, I take it back, what I said earlier about there not being a Polgara-type: Mother Sea (yes, the Earth and the Sea are characters, as is the Moon) comes off as very much cut from that mold. Ah, well. At least she doesn’t show up very often. That’s got to count for something, right?
We only have one exceptionally talented archer with uncommon perceptive skills and a knack for politics, military campaigns and espionage, but one of him is more than enough.
What really irks me about this book, I suppose, is one of the things that irked me about “Althalus.” (Yes, I’m sure you’re shocked and amazed.) While the characterization in “The Elder Gods” is a huge improvement, the characters don’t generally have any meaningful flaws. Everyone’s just so damned likeable, and for some reason that makes me want to not like the whole bunch of them that much more.
Again we contrast to the earlier, vastly superior Belgariad. Silk’s mouth got him in actual trouble from time to time. Garion’s youthful indecision and impulsiveness got everyone into trouble on occasion. Hettar was a classic obsessive type and had to be reined in fairly regularly. Mandorallen could be both impossibly dense and rudely overbearing at times. These characteristics were smoothed away a bit over the course of the series, but at least they didn’t start out in a state of near-perfection.
Speaking of contrasts, how about those bad guys? A maimed, unloved god? An apostate former friend and ally? Various characters of significant magical or political power whose alliances tended to shift back and forth as need dictated? All of that made for interesting conflicts. And none of that is in this book. “Kill those bug-snake-men,” that’s the whole of it. They even manage to turn a decent mid-book all-human naval confrontation into just another skirmish against the hive critters, by grafting a wholly-unsurprising new motivation onto the antagonists of the moment.
I think it boils down to the fact that The Eddings, much like Anne McCaffrey has done, have reached a point where they can’t stand hurting any of their characters, nor can they stand having lead characters that somebody out there may dislike in some way for any reason at all. But mostly it’s about the not-hurting. The problem is, if your characters aren’t getting hurt, where’s the conflict that drives the story?
My all-time favorite fantasy-ish series is Raymond E. Feist’s “Riftwar” books, and most of the books that come after. (And by “most” I mean “everything but those forgettable ‘Krondor the Whatever’ books. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.) One thing Mr. Feist has done that impresses me is that he’s actually become tougher on his characters as time goes by. The first book of the “Serpentwar” series startled me with how gritty and harsh the depictions of war became. People died all over the place. Those who survived were scarred in some fashion, and the meaningful scars were psychological.
One doesn’t go into an Eddings novel expecting that sort of gritty realism, but it’s hard to invest oneself in a story that’s so bland as to barely impose itself upon your psyche.
That’s not the worst of it, though. Oh, no. There’s one last thing that really annoyed me, and that’s the climax of the military campaign (such as it was). It’s spoileriffic, however, so you may just want to stop reading here. Really.
I’m about to spoil a big part of the ending. You can, if you want, stop reading this entry right here and get the gist of how I feel about the book.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
See, it was starting to get interesting there towards the end. The good guys get outsmarted, and then outmaneuvered, and then ambushed. Hey, the bad guys are getting in a good beating, this is pretty cool! Action, drama! Wait, what’s that? The good guys are cut off, surrounded, and running out of oh-so-clever ideas? Well now, let’s see what kind of heroic sacrifice or effort will be involved in getting out of this mess—
ZOT! BOOM! And one of the gods makes the whole damned problem go away.
Wait wait wait WAIT! Are you kidding me? We gave up on the “ex machina” and went for pure “deus”? No muss, no fuss, nobody gets hurt? ARGH! This is almost as bad of a cheat as the time-travel ourobourus ending to “Althalus,” and that’s saying something.
Okay, the spoilers are done. It’s safe to read below this point.
Was I entertained by this book? Oh, sure. Was I disappointed? Yes, that too. Is it an improvement over the author’s previous work? Mostly. Should you rush out and buy a copy? Used, paperback, maybe. If you liked “Althalus,” you’ll totally dig this. If you think the Eddings’ material started going downhill during or after the first Sparhawk series, you should probably steer clear of this unless you’re a sucker for their style of clever banter. (In case you hadn’t already figured it out: Unfortunately, I am.) If you’ve never read an Eddings book… go grab the Belgariad books, which are far and away the best material bearing the author’s name.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to dive into the other book I picked up at Powell’s the other day…