Tension, Prologues, and Dramatic Irony

February 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

Or: How David Eddings ruined a perfectly good book by including a prologue

First off, I apologize for the few new posts as of late. I’ve talked about the Three Stooges Syndrome here before, and I happen to be struggling with a bad case of it. I’m trying to crank out another short story or two to get in the submissions merry-go-round, finish the young adult steampunk novel that I’ve been working on for the last year (draft six, here I come), and a few new projects have come down the pipeline at work and are taking more creative energy than usual (which is a welcome challenge). Too many ideas have been trying to get out of my brain all at once, and hence none of them were making it through the door.

I had to cut back on something and, compared to work and writing, blogging isn’t my top priority. What that means is  for the next few weeks (or until things begin to lighten up) I’m going to blog only when I’ve got something demanding to be shared with you folks.

Which segues nicely into what brings me to my keyboard tonight…

I’ve had Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings, a young adult fantasy book (and the first book of The Belgariad) sitting on my to-read pile for almost a year ago. A friend lent it to me saying it’s one of his all-time favorite series and that he reads it every year. With such high praise, I could hardly decline when he offered to lend it to me. Why did it take me so long to get around to reading it? Well, I mentioned not too long ago that I’m not the biggest fan of fantasy cliches, and Pawn of Prophecy not only has “prophecy” in the title, which bodes ill for it, but stars a young boy who is orphaned, lives on a farm, and is secretly the heir to the throne and the only person who can wield the most powerful sword ever created. So it’s pretty much the smorgasbord of overused fantasy tropes.

Still, one has to cut it a little slack because it’s from 1982, which maybe was before people knew better. Maybe.

Generally, the book had some good things going for it: it created an interesting world with enough detail to make it feel real, I liked several of the characters (even if they fell into rather prototypical molds), and the magic system wasn’t shamefully copied from Ursula K. LeGuin.

The thing that marred this book beyond my ability to make excuses was the prologue. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of prologues to begin with (though I must admit that I succumb to them in my own writing on occasion). I don’t like being introduced to characters who are going to die before chapter one or who we’re never going to see again, and I don’t like being told 10,000 years of world history before the first word of chapter one.

The prologue of Pawn of Prophecy was the second of these exactly. It was like reading a condensed version of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (if you actually finished that book, you are a better person than I) and explained the beginning of time and the creation of the planet, the races of man and the conflicts of the gods, yada yada, etc. etc. If that was the only problem with the prologue I could have skimmed it and happily moved on, forgetting all the nonsense that I would likely be shown again in more interesting ways in the pages to come. The true achilles heel that ruined the whole of the book was that in the prologue Eddings reveals all of the mysteries of the story to come.

Young Garion the farm-boy, king-in-hiding, raised-by-wizards, and only-hope-for-the-land protagonist spends half the book wondering who his “Aunt” Pol really is and what her relation is to Mister Wolf.  He spends the whole book wondering–and never even learns–what the stolen object is that they are seeking (the sword/orb of ultimate power) and who he really is (the heir to the throne). If you’re sitting there angry with me for ruining a book for you that you might have someday read, just remember that Eddings tells you all that in the prologue! Eddings is the guy in the movie theater who’s seen the film before and leans over to you at the very beginning of The Empire Strikes Back and says “Darth Vader is actually Lukes father. Also, there’s the funny green guy on Dagobah is actually the Jedi master Yoda, Luke gets his hand cut off in the end, and Han gets frozen in carbonite. Enjoy the movie!”

Eddings works hard to create mysterious backgrounds and relationships for his characters and then ruins the mystery. Dramatic irony has its time and place, but who wants to know the name of the murderer before the first chapter even begins in a who-dun-it? I found myself skimming ahead, hoping to get to a part where I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen next while the characters asked redundant, rhetorical  questions.

The light at the end of the tunnel was the thought that once I got through this book I could at least enjoy the rest of the series because: how could they possibly ruin more? Then I got to the last line in the book, which read:

Book Two, Queen of Sorcery, will reveal Garion’s own dangerous powers of sorcery and more on his heritage, which underlies their quest.

AHHH!!!!! I don’t want to know what will be in book two!!! That’s why I want to read it! To find out what happens in it! (Note: I apologize for the proliferation of emphatic punctuation, but if there was a time for which the exclamation point was invented this is surely it.) Needless to say, book two is not in my future, and I don’t need a prophecy to tell me that.

Am I missing something here or is this just a terrible storytelling technique?

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