I very rarely re-read novels. There are maybe a dozen I have read more than once, meaning the reviews on this blog are the product of first-time reads, or a hearkening back from memory to pull what remains. But with Stephen King’s 1987 Eyes of the Dragon it’s too far back. Read in high school, not to mention with the mindset of a teenager, I’d like to think my critical reading skills have since evolved since, and as a result may result in a different view of the novel now. Inspired by having just finished King’s writing guide/memoir On Writing, I decided to add another book to the dozen or so.
I remember Eyes of the Dragon in a positive light—not as the greatest novel ever written, but as something interesting, dark, unexpected, and cut from a different cloth than the other King novels I’d read at the time. What then does my forty-year old brain, now riddled with hundreds and hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels, think?
The Eyes of the Dragon opens in very typical, high fantasy, almost children’s fashion: evil wizard plots the downfall of a kingdom and the lovable royals who call it home. And the story largely plays out in a fashion one might expect from such a setup. When seeing the noble prince Peter will someday bring stability to the kingdom of Derlane, Flagg, the mischief-loving magician, decides to put an end to his potential. Rather than outright kill Peter, however, Flagg decides to frame and imprison him, allowing his younger, more impetuous brother Thomas to take the throne. Things initially unfolding as Flagg has planned, Peter proves he is likewise wise in his years, however, and takes the story of the kingdom of Derlane in a new direction.
The most striking aspect of Eyes of the Dragon is the narrator’s voice. The tone of a storyteller addressing young people, there are innumerable little winks and nods to the reader that remind them the tale is being told rather than read. Said tone attempting to keep matters light and breezy like fairy tales of old, it’s humorous watching King try to avoid being dark—chomping at the bit to be grittier or more forbidding. The result is an imbalance of story. There is a very strong YA high fantasy feel to the narration and story type, yet, King constantly seeks to subvert his creation with jabs and feints at ‘darker’ substance. Never the twain did meet.
Following up on this with King’s own recommendations in On Writing (a candid, succinct, and precise summary which indicates a crystal clear understanding of the craft of writing), the prose of Eyes of the Dragon comes across as surprisingly average, if not a little fluffy. While not perfectly maintaining a ‘Once upon a time....’ tone, it’s clear King was aiming for a bardic recalling of legend. Yet the digressions and interruptions do not seem to adhere to his own advice. I’m almost ready to add this to my ‘novels better off as novellas’ list.
In the end, The Eyes of the Dragon is a novel that does not hold up well in my forty-year old eyes. Not terrible, the overarching authorial/narrator voice nevertheless floats in that gray area between charming and annoying in its attempts to balance classic high fantasy with something a little darker in tone; a winking bard is not always best suited for gritty turns of fate. The characters are 2D, and a fair amount of the middle section is more filler than story development. King does a great job setting up and unpacking the locked room mystery (which is, I would argue, the selling point of the book), but the overall plot remains pedestrian—good prince, evil wizard, fantasy kingdom, etc. As stated in the introduction, I recall this novel with some fondness from the days I first read it as a high schooler, but twenty years later it has lost whatever glow it had, meaning my recommendation is: best appreciated by teenagers…