Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Eyes of the Dragon


   I've tried and failed to write this review multiple times over the course of several days, and I suppose that alone is a testament to exactly how this book impacted me. It's further proof that moments after finishing the book, I was affected by the ending, but looking back on it, I don't feel as strongly as I did about, say, The Talisman or It or the bleak and depressing throes of 'Salem's Lot. Sometimes, all a good book needs to be is just that: A good book. Things can just be good without being earth-shattering. And, while The Eyes of the Dragon isn't an earth-shattering book, or something that made me weep openly, or something like "Clockwork Girl" that I will never be able to read again that just rips me up inside, it doesn't need to be anything earth-shattering. 

                          The story is a fairly typical adventure story with some very cool narrative flourishes. While there are some definite pacing issues, most of these are explained by one simple fact, one I learned long ago: Stephen King wrote this book for his children and the children of Peter Straub. He may have very well edited and rewritten it for publication, or possibly added bits that addressed his own road to recovery (as that seems to be a theme around the eighties and nineties, even if he didn't necessarily put it in there himself) in places here and there. I've always admired Stephen King for his ability to simply tell a good story, and that is all he ever needed to do. And that's all the book does.

                         I would spend more time bashing the terribly silly paperback copy or the pacing issues, but these things don't really enter into it. You might like this book more, as I admit my imagination has been stunted these past four-ish years. You might like it less, expecting something tighter than an adventure story about captured princes and secret passageways and the importance of always having a napkin, Either way, it's definitely worth a read. 

More, as always, below.

"The salvation of all that is good is only this-- at times of great import, evil beings fall strangely blind."

                         The Eyes of the Dragon is the story of the Kingdom of Delain. Delain is ruled by King Roland, a bowlegged man that might enjoy his drink a little too much, but is, while not a great king, a good king. With his wife, Sasha, Roland has a son named Peter who becomes the apple of the kingdom's eye. Peter is kind, just, and merciful. He learns quickly, he's a good student, and tries to be polite to everyone. Even his horse, Peonie, was something Peter rescued from certain death due to a broken leg. All the kingdom loves Sasha and Peter, and, because he is a good father and allows his wife and son to sway him into good decisions, all the kingdom loves King Roland of Delain. Even more so after he killed the great dragon Niner and mounted him on the wall.

                        All, that is, except for the king's chief advisor and court magician, the evil Flagg*. Flagg, you see, has no need for a good king, or a good wife, or a wise and just prince. Flagg is following his own agenda, an agenda that involves a lot of bloodshed and lives being lost. An agenda that results in the kingdom descending into chaos and several wars being caused.

                          So Flagg hatches a plan, and a series of odd events happen. First, Sasha dies birthing her second son, Thomas. Thomas is nowhere near Peter and does not have the benefit of Sasha's guidance and patience. He is neglected by his father, and is, for the most part, remarkably average. He is, however, also weak-willed. And easily manipulated. All things Flagg enjoys and wishes to use to the fullest. But there's the matter of Peter and Roland to deal with. And this is where the second odd event comes in. A strange poison known as "dragon-sand" finds its way into the King's nightly glass of wine. Third, Delain's favorite son, Prince Peter, turns up with a packet of dragon-sand in a box behind a secret panel on the bookcase. Peter handles the situation in a politically-unsound manner, as he doesn't understand the savvy nature of the surrounding proceedings, and then it's one-two-three, Peter's in the frightening tower known as the Needle for life and Thomas (and therefore Flagg) is on the throne.


                          Except Peter isn't dead. And within five days of his captivity in the tall stone tower of the Needle, Peter has a plan. A plan that involves his mother's legacy to him: The small dollhouse his mother used, with an exact replica of the entire castle in it, and the napkin she taught him to use at every meal. And maybe, just maybe, with these tools, Peter might find a way out, and back on to Delain's rightful throne. The kingdom needs him, and a monster is oppressing his people. And it will take all his cunning to get back to them.

                                  So in past reviews, I've complained because the plot summary up there is all there is to the story. That there's only the thinnest excuse for a plot holding the book together. Those complaints ring hollow just now. Because The Eyes of the Dragon has a pretty standard plot for the most part. The hero is framed and imprisoned and has to clear his name. The villain is an evil monster with red eyes** whose only real purpose is to bring good people to ruin. It's all very, very standard. While I won't tell it to you, you can probably even guess the ending. And this is what makes it interesting. Because The Eyes of the Dragon is the best example I can think of right now of how the tale isn't the important thing, but the telling. Both for good and for ill, Eyes distinguishes itself by the way it tells the story. King frames Eyes as a story being told by someone, someone who seems very old, and occasionally gets ahead of themselves or behind themselves. It allows a lot of the usual narrative holes and the very straightforward plot to feel different and new to a certain extent. Because of the way the narrative voice draws the reader in, makes the whole proceedings feel a whole lot more intimate. It's a narrative voice that feels close, both to the story and to the reader. 

                                   The descriptions and points of view also help a lot. King describes everything in, well, the detail usual for high-fantasy stories, with descriptions of almost every meal, and especially descriptions of Flagg's creepy castle dungeon. The point of view-switching King does also helps a great deal, giving sympathy to most characters, and also establishing very early on that Flagg is a monster. We get descriptions of Sasha's dollhouse and how everything carved by the great royal artisan was an exact working replica of the castle itself. We get information on how Thomas is not a good boy, but is far from a bad boy, and it makes it work. At one point, King even switches to the point of view of Frisky, the dog of Ben Staad and Naomi Reichul*** to show how Frisky views the various bits of information and helps add important character. It also helps make a lot of characters (the Chief Justice, the head jailor) a lot more fleshed out, where in the typical story, they'd just be stock characters to move around the plot. It also helps when the descriptions re-enter the plot, a trick that makes the reader (okay, this reader) feel very clever, and like the story has a definite cohesion to it. 

                                  However, the book has one point I'd like to discuss, because it does stick to me, and that's the pacing. The book, and maybe it's just the mass-market paperback I was reading that made it look kind of long and feel like kind of a slog, is really poorly-paced. It takes almost a third of the length to get to the point where the protagonists of the story are introduced, and while some of that is valuable setting information, some of it feels a little like the storyteller is getting lost in talking about his story. As someone who has had to tell the same story over and over again and make sure they get down all the right details, believe me, I know how this feels, and to those who have been told it in the long, rambling fashon I have adopted for the past two months, I am deeply, deeply sorry. Because I know how that feels, too. The Eyes of the Dragon does get a little rambly in places, and while it doesn't hurt the book, it doesn't help it much, either.

                               I also have an issue dissecting this because it's very personal. Stephen King wrote this book for his kids, and while it may not be a book about the King family directly, and King could have edited it, there are...touches. Touches that seem like in-jokes, or King talking about his friends and family in ways that couldn't possibly be a coincidence. And it makes me feel weird trying to dissect it and talk about it, because I feel like I've just stumbled into something very personal and very much a product for a specific audience, of which I am not a part. And that's weird. How do I know if I'm doing it right? If I give it a good review, have I intruded and made something part of my own? If I give it a bad review, is it because I was never meant to engage in the work to begin with? And am I an asshole for taking points off?

                              But those same in-jokes allow The Eyes of the Dragon to function as a sort of crossroads for King's bigger metafictional universe. Little things. Things like how "rull" is a unit of measurement, something that later pops up in "Dolan's Cadillac" from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. The red-eyed monster of a court magician, Flagg, also pops up in The Stand, and might be the same court magician from The Dark Tower, as Rhea of the Coos is mentioned (as Rhiannon of the Coos) in Eyes****. It's actually kind of cool knowing how the in-jokes originated. And knowing that Eyes is kind of the "key book". It's certainly one I'd recommend to all the people who don't dig horror and want to read King, and the one I'd rather people read before embarking on the sprawl that is The Dark Tower (but more on that later).

                               In the end, I suppose all I have to say is this: The Eyes of the Dragon is a work of classical fantasy that, while it doesn't do anything especially groundbreaking, is a good book. And that's all it needs to be. Art doesn't always need to convey an idea. Sometimes it just needs to convey emotions. Sometimes it just needs to make people empathize with it and each other for a small period of time. Sometimes all it needs to do is paint a pretty picture, or engage the imagination, or give someone a world to curl up into when everything around them turns to crap, or entertain someone for a while. Sometimes there are no things to get into under the hood, and with that in mind, The Eyes of the Dragon is a very good book. Not a great book, not a book I would chase through the years (mostly because every library in New Jersey seems to have a copy of it with the cover used above), but a good book.

And sometimes, that's all anyone needs. A good book.

- From a Buick 8

- The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Kirilanovich

*And all the people who read The Stand gasp and go "I know this one!" I KNOW, OKAY? GETTING TO IT IN A MOMENT.
** Yes, yes, I know, we're getting to it.
***Well, the book was dedicated to Ben Straub and Naomi King...
****You see how patience pays off?

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