Saturday, September 4, 2010

Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

The Eyes of the Dragon
By Stephen King

Published in 1986, The Eyes of the Dragon was King’s first novel-length attempt at fantasy. Most King fans rank it as one of his average works. It’s not anywhere near his top tier stuff and not as good as second tier stories such as The Talisman and The Tommyknockers.

The story is set in the Kingdom of Delain. King Roland of Delain has two sons. His elder son, Peter is earnest and commands respect. His younger son very much resembles his father who loves to indulge in revelry, but is not a strong leader. Roland is very much dependent on his chief advisor, Flagg – the same Flagg, also know as Randall Flagg – from The Stand

Flagg has spent centuries in Delain under a few guises and has fomented mischief and evil throughout his time there. He senses that, upon the ascension of Peter to the throne, he will be marginalized or worse, banished from the kingdom. He resolves to put asunder that ascension.

He knows he can not kill Thomas because the King’s love for his son is so great, Roland would stop at nothing to find Peter’s killer. Therefore, he decides to kill Roland and frame Peter for the murder.

His plan comes of without incident – except for one. Young Thomas uses a secret passage that brings him to an observation point that overlooks his father’s study. That observation point is inside the head of a dragon, slain by his father and mounted as a trophy upon the wall.

Incriminating evidence of poison is found in Peter's room by his loyal butler, Dennis. The evidence is used to show that Peter killed his father in a brazen attempt to ascend to the thrown. Because he is royalty, and no member of the royal family can be executed, he is instead banished to the top of The Needle, a high tower in the center of town that has played host to political prisoners in the past.

Peter begins a new life as a lifer inmate. There is seemingly no escape from atop the 300 foot tall Needle with just one heavily guarded door and one window as an exit. Peter, however, angry and distraught not only for the injustice done to him but the murder of his father, is determined to find a means of escape.

Find a means he does. To describe how Peter painstakingly constructs the apparatus of his escape would be too large a spoiler to add to a review. Assuredly, it is a clever bit of plotting and writing by the author.

Meanwhile, the insecure, new King Thomas finds himself totally reliant upon Flagg for guidance and Flagg becomes the ultimate power behind the throne. Taxes are raised beyond the ability of most to pay. Nobles and commoners alike flee the kingdom to the outer baronies. At first they call themselves exiles. They soon start to think of themselves as rebels. King Tom becomes known as Thomas the Taxbringer and is despised by his people.

Flagg has no fear of rebellion since chaos is what he craves. Thomas' nerves are constantly on edge and like his father, he finds solace in drink. His dreams haunt him and he begins to sleepwalk to that dragon’s head where he relives again his father’s painful death. He is observed by Dennis who overhears Peter’s somnolent ramblings and concludes that his former liege is indeed innocent.

Working with former friends who are now exiles, Dennis develops a plan of escape. Meanwhile, after four years of imprisonment high atop the kingdom, Peter’s own plan is nearing fruition. Flagg senses that, despite his impeccable planning and execution, something has gone awry. He moves to intercept Dennis, and his friends as Peter attempts his daring escape.

The story’s telling is much like that of Tolkien’s The Hobbit. King’s first person, disinterested narrative resembles Tolkien’s telling of Bilbo Baggins adventures. King, while not directly saying, “I am Stephen King,” injects himself into the narrative by offering occasional and brief personal observations on the setting.

The plot is the stuff of children’s stories. While the book might rate a “G” because it contains no foul language or strong sexual content, it’s not a children’s book. Like Tolkien’s tale, the verbiage is beyond the level of most children.

I’ve always viewed this book as incredibly average. King has certainly written much worse books. But there is no real hook. I feel this way not because it is outside the horror genre. I enjoy most, if not all, of King’s mainstream work outside of horror. It’s just that the story is only mildly clever and the characters mildly interesting.

What is remarkable about this book for King is its brevity. It is only 300 pages. Absent are the long character backstories and long history of the setting. Perhaps that is why it is a mundane story. King is at his best when writing epic novels.

The link to the Dark Tower is of course our old friend, Randall Flagg. He’s a minion of the Dark Tower who appears in many worlds and many times to stir up evil or step in to cause misery when evil has already occurred. King wraps up his story by telling us that Thomas and Dennis go on to confront Randall Flagg at another time in another place. We know that Flagg is around long enough to cause Roland Duschain and his Ka-Tet serious problems in another time and another world. We shall see what role Thomas and Dennis have in Flagg’s future endeavors.

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