It’s not an exaggeration to say that buying my first Stephen King book was a rite of passage that helped mark the end of my childhood and the start of adulthood. I wish I could remember the exact circumstances behind that purchase. I do know that I’d gone from camping out in kids’ section of our local Waldenbooks to wandering the aisles of horror fiction, fascinated by and terrified of the dark, sinister-looking book covers and wanting so badly to find out if the stories were as compelling as the jacket descriptions made them sound. Especially those Stephen King books, with their haunted hotels and evil clowns and other unspeakable horrors. I can’t recall if I was given permission from my parents to finally buy one, or if it was understood that I was old enough to pick out my own reading material. Whichever it was, I’m eternally grateful to them for not trying to dictate what I came home with. They weren’t huge fans of Stephen King (or horror in general) but they weren’t naive about the sorts of things contained within his books. They’d read a few of his stories – Cujo, Christine, and The Dead Zone, if I remember correctly – and they’d seen a few movie adaptations. Of course they knew his books were scary and they also knew that there would be violence and rough language and sex. But they trusted that I could handle it. Thus, the first two Stephen King books I bought were the two biggest (in both size and scope) in his catalog: The Stand and IT. I was in middle school. And as I’ve said before and will say over and over again, these books quite literally changed my life.
But had I known that there was a Stephen King book out there that was a little more kid-friendly, I might have turned to him years earlier. As it was, I didn’t find out about The Eyes of the Dragon until a few years later, and by that point, I’d already been through most of his catalog. Full of my own self-importance at my sophisticated, grown-up taste in novels, I decided that, even if he was my favorite writer, I wouldn’t deign to read something geared towards kids. And it would be a few years more until I got past that. I should say too that, back in those days, I was rather, um, disdainful of the Dark Tower books (I know, I know, blasphemy). I couldn’t tell you why, since Madeline L’Engle’s Time Quintet was (and still is) one of my favorite book series, but for some totally illogical reason, I thought fantasy was beneath me. And the Dark Tower combined fantasy with another of my least favorite (at the time) genres – westerns. But, good Constant Reader that I am, I eventually gave Roland’s story a try (and immediately fell in love with it. Let that be another lesson, kids – never judge a book by its cover or your presuppositions about genre), and was thrilled to see scattered bits of Stephen King’s world fall together like puzzle pieces. Because, as we know, almost all of his books connect, in big ways and small, along the road (or the Path?) leaning to the Dark Tower. Of course I then had to go back and read (or re-read) all of the related books…and that included The Eyes of the Dragon. I can’t say I really wanted to, and I’m pretty sure I waited until I had no other DT-related books left, but eventually I read it.
And I was enchanted. A fairy tale about far away lands and kings and magic and evil usurpers of the throne, it’s just as good as anything else he’s written. It weighs in at about 400 pages, so really, the only thing that would make someone think it’s a “kids” book is the lack of sex or language. Otherwise it fits his canon well, with fantastic characters, a page-turning story-line, and the reappearance of his best villain, Flagg. King’s personification of evil, who plays quite a large role in tying his universe together, finally gets his own story (because, though Prince Peter may be the main protagonist, it’s Flagg we’re all here to see). And he’s at his destructive best here, in a realm called Delain, where he’s the adviser to King Roland (hmmmm…) who is kind but weak. And Flagg, who wants nothing more than to oversee the destruction of that peaceful land, is biding his time, using the king’s weaknesses to plant the seeds of discord throughout the kingdom. But teenaged Peter, Roland’s firstborn son, begins to show signs of the truly great king he will become, and Flagg knows that his plans will come to naught should Peter inherit the throne. So Flagg uses the rivalry between Peter and his younger, timorous, jealous brother, Thomas, to hatch a plot to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
I just finished re-reading The Eyes of the Dragon for the first time since my initial reading some fifteen years ago (thanks, Stephen King Revisited), and because so much time had passed, I’d forgotten pretty much everything about it. The story was completely fresh to me, which was actually a good thing – I was able to approach it knowing nothing more than that I’d enjoyed it once and was bound to do so again. And that’s why I’m not going to say too much more about it because I don’t want to spoil the ride for anyone else. It was a good one – exciting, full of twists and turns, and like all good rides, over too soon. King’s books tend to dip their toes in the fantastic while staying rooted in reality, but I love it when he jumps fully in like he did with this. And that’s also why I’m really looking forward to the next on the list: The Talisman.