Review — Pawn of Prophecy

I first heard about David Eddings’ Belgariad Saga through Matt Colville a highly respected dungeon master in the D&D community and, I assume, a very competent writer as well. Matt is ever the proponent of classical media, and often uses it to inform his own design choices, so when he explained a plot point of one of his favorite books series, I felt obligated to put that book series on my list.

Pawn of Prophecy, published in 1982, is very much the textbook hero’s journey. I joke about how the first installment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is just a ripoff to The Lord of the Rings, which I still think is quite fair, but I’m even more amused to say that Pawn of Prophecy and Eye of the World start almost exactly the same way. The only difference is that the Belgariad focuses on the journey of one boy, whereas The Wheel of Time centralizes around three. It makes me wonder—was the epic fantasy genre so limited and niche decades ago that what few books there were were all exactly the same? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the Sword of Truth series. Okay, well now I have, but I can’t simply be cherry-picking here. There must be some validity to it.

Anyways, enough talking about the similarities, let’s talk about what this book is in a vacuum. Overall, I think it does feel a bit dated compared to the fantasy of today. It does have much less action scenes, not to say that modern books need that or that that fact detracts from the story, just an observation. Pawn of Prophecy is very much the opening to a larger world, where big things are happening but the young hero—and by extension the reader—is ignorant of these events.

What amazes me most about this book is that it’s a great character study for a typical D&D setting. It features some classic archetypes for player characters, but also houses very realistic places and digestible politics. My favorite interaction in the whole book is when guards are interrogating the party as they pass through town. The con-man of the group has a very normal conversation with the guard that is obviously about discussing a bribe price, even though neither person mentions anything outright. To a casual observer, they’d just as soon have been talking about the weather. Clean but meaningful exchanges like that is something that this book excels in, and a writer would do well to learn from these things.

The biggest drawback to this book is its classical nature. Things take quite a bit to happen, and for any avid reader or anyone familiar with the Hero’s Journey, this book can’t surprise you with any event or plot twist it tries to throw at you. Especially if you’ve read the Wheel of Time first. Having admittedly only read the first book of the Belgariad, I would so far summarize it as an “Easy Mode” version of The Wheel of Time. The former is five books long, the latter fourteen. And to be honest, I only got through the first five books of WoT before I realized I still didn’t care about a single character, and thus put it down (forever?)

So while there’s nothing truly innovative about Pawn of Prophecy, it’s a short, relaxing read. Not much suspense, but quite immersive for what it is.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.