Following It, arguably Stephen King's most satisfying piece of work to this point in his career, was always going to be a challenge - the novel was something of a high water mark, complex in structure and rich in prevalent King themes. And so it came to pass that readers were divided over his next release, The Eyes of the Dragon, a straightforward fantasy novel about feudal skullduggery. Reading the novels one after another, it's hard not to sympathise with those who bemoaned the dashing of their high expectations; after the dense plotting and split timelines of It, this book almost feels like a palate cleanser.
Major spoilers ahead! Here's the plot in a nutshell: in the kingdom of Delain, King Roland has two sons, Peter (strong-willed, intelligent, brave) and Thomas (weak, jealous, neglected). Sinister adviser Flagg poisons Roland, pins the murder on Peter and has him imprisoned for life at the top of a 300-foot tower, the Needle. Thomas, who secretly witnessed his father's death, is crowned in his older brother's place. Peter ingeniously engineers his eventual escape, some years later, with the help of his few remaining friends, a stack of napkins and a dollhouse. Flagg is wounded and flees the realm. Thomas and his butler head out on a quest to track him down. The end.
There's more to it, of course, but those are the bare bones. The Eyes of the Dragon started life as a book for King's daughter (who had read none of his previous novels due to their horror content, and who also appears as a minor character) and has some of the hallmarks of what would come to be known as 'young adult' fiction: among them, a relatively uncomplicated story, a few twists and turns, a sense of morality and life lessons aplenty. And as with much YA fare (and as we have come to expect from King), it's also very readable. The omniscient first person narrator delivers the tale as if this were a bedtime story, occasionally linking back to the real world, and the book's short chapters help to keep things moving along at a brisk pace. King also uses his narrator to slip in didactic tips on subjects including relationships, nicotine and guilt, which is less irksome than that probably sounds.
However, the fact that the novel is aimed at a younger audience has a downside - The Eyes of the Dragon lacks the emotional punch of King's best writing (or at least it provoked little feeling in me). Peter and Thomas are both essentially passive characters to whom bad things happen, which can make the time we spend with them drag. Thomas reads as a tiresome, unlikable puppet, despite the narrator's efforts to justify or explain his weakness, while even Peter's inherent goodness and ingenuity begin to grate after a while. This passivity extends to several of the secondary characters (among them Anders Peyna and Ben Staad), who spend much of the book with their hands tied, waiting for the right time to act. King's standard operating procedure here would be to milk the various delays and uncertainties for tension, but The Eyes of the Dragon more often feels flat instead.
The one exception to this, and I think the reason behind it, is the Flagg character. Regular readers will recognise the name from The Stand, in which Randall Flagg represented and controlled the worst aspects of humanity. He's an enigmatic but compelling force of evil and influence. The fantasy version on display in The Eyes of the Dragon is no less compelling - hundreds of years old, a scheming murderer and a demonic agent of anarchy, Flagg is by far the most interesting character in the novel, and the book only fully comes alive when he features. King clearly relishes writing his villain, as evidenced by the amount of detail we get about him near the beginning of the story. The sequence in which Flagg carefully measures out the virulent poison that brings such a wretched death to Roland is tense and thrilling, as is the death itself. His manipulation of Thomas as he feeds his insecurity and greed is cruel and horribly insidious. In a nod to his horror readership, King references Leng and Alhazred, placing Flagg firmly in the Lovecraftian realm of forbidden knowledge. But the strength of Flagg as a character is part of the novel's problem: when the villain owns and uses a copy of the Necronomicon bound in human skin, the teenage antagonists can't help but feel slightly insipid.
While dealing with the flaws in The Eyes of the Dragon, I should also briefly mention the book's sporadic illustrations (in my edition, those of David Palladini, although other editions have had different artists), which I must admit are not to my personal taste. While it's possible that the awkward compositions and odd perspectives are perhaps trying to evoke the flatness of medieval art, in my opinion these images rather detract from the story. Apart from the opening dragon illustration on the title page, I'm afraid they left me cold.
As I noted at the top of this post, readers were unsure about The Eyes of the Dragon when it was first published, many of them clamouring for a return to King's staple genre - a backlash that would subsequently be reflected in King's scathing treatment of the writer/fan relationship, Misery. As is probably clear by now, my own views on the novel are mixed; despite its general readability and some engaging sequences, it feels a little underwhelming. Certainly it's an unusual departure in terms of genre, plot and tone (in fact, it shares most in common with The Gunslinger in that respect) and taken on its own terms, as a tale for younger readers, the novel succeeds. But it's easy to see how a more mature (specifically horror) audience might consider the book disposable. And while the feudal version of Flagg gives insight into what will become an increasingly important figure in other books, that isn't enough to make it likely that I'll return to The Eyes of the Dragon any time soon.
Notes for the obsessive factfan: Naomi's dog Frisky thinks in the same format as Cujo (but without the rabid insanity), which is a nice touch. King's reference to sorcerers being used at sea for weather control calls to mind Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books, whether deliberately or not. Finally, just as Flagg is an alternate version of Randall Flagg from The Stand, arguably so too is King Roland a weaker version of Roland from The Dark Tower series - but we'll revisit these connections in more detail at a later date.
Next: The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three.