I think I just like stories with kings, magicians and giant castles, even when written by Stephen King. I say “even” only because 1987’s The Eyes of the Dragon feels absolutely like a departure for King from his usual supernatural horror stories, which is intentional. King wrote this book for his then-13-year-old daughter, Naomi. What also feels like a departure from prior King books is that this one has numerous beautiful, at times macabre, illustrations by David Palladini. This King novel is also distinguished from the rest of his works that I’ve read by its short, almost snippy chapters. In other words, it has a quick flow that befits someone younger reading it. But! Just because it was written for a 13-year-old doesn’t mean it is bereft of King’s … nastiness, for lack of a better word. After all, the villain uses a table made out of human skin, the king eats a still-beating dragon’s heart, and said king also dies a brutal death.
There is a throughline in this book that, nevertheless, connects us back to King’s “dominion” as it were: The aforementioned villain is Flagg, a centuries-old magician who comes to the kingdom of Delain in various disguises. In his latest iteration, he’s the hand of King Roland the Good, a rather dullard king — which makes him ripe pickings for the evil machinations of Flagg. Flagg, if that name rings a bell, is the villainous character in King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic fantasy, The Stand. Like in that story, the characters in this story also have nightmares about Flagg. I’ve learned recently that some people think Flagg is the ultimate evil villain in King’s dominion: That is, he is virtually all the evil villains in King’s stories from these two aforementioned books to Pennywise in It released a year prior to The Eyes of the Dragon. In fact, a few times through this book, Flagg is referred to as an “It.” So, it is a good theory!
The fantasy story on offer is rather straightforward and typical: Roland’s heir is slated to be his oldest son, Peter, who is a noble, well-read and pacifist budding man. He is the kind of boy who takes in a horse before it can be slaughtered and befriends someone barely of noble blood. Meanwhile, his younger brother, Thomas, is the spitting image of his dopey, bowlegged father, and is hatefully envious of his brother. So much so that in one scene, he brutally a stones a feeble, starving dog to death out of frustration when his father brags on Peter at his expense. Sorry King, despite your protestations as the narrator that Thomas isn’t really a bad boy, if you kill a dog, you’re dead to me. Naturally, Flagg sees Peter as a threat and Thomas as someone who can be molded to do his bidding to bring the Kingdom of Delain to ruin. Using his cleverness and trickery, as well as his knowledge and mastery of poisons, like Dragon Sand — it essentially cooks the one who encounters it from the inside out until they die — Flagg poisons the King and “flags” Peter for the crime.
Peter is arrested, tried and sentenced to the Needle, some 370-tall prison in the kingdom where criminals go. In his place as the next King then, is Thomas, who obviously relies heavily on Flagg’s “guidance,” like higher taxes on the farmers (to bring them to revolt, Flagg hopes) and axing to death most of the nobles.
That premise is familiar, but King is as clever as his villain and makes the story compelling and enthralling as any of his books I’ve read, particularly in how both Flagg’s scheme to take power and Peter’s scheme to escape unravel (hint hint). Peter was such a great character to root for because he was so good — and I think a rare King character in that way, where he didn’t have any obvious flaws? — and I loved the myriad, diverse people who came to his defense along the way and to help break him out of the Needle: his former butler, Dennis, who wants to do his duty; his near-peasant friend, Ben, who is willing to die for his friend; the Kingdom’s Judge-General, Anders Peyna, who seeks to make amends for his mistake; and Naomi (surely named after his daughter!), a farmer’s daughter and budding love interest of Ben’s, who uses an awesome huskie to track down Dennis and then get to Peter. Good doggy.
If you are like King’s daughter and don’t enjoy his take on vampires and the supernatural, then I think, like his daughter, you will love this. It is probably the most fun King book I have read. It is a fully realized world, with fully realized characters, and with narration that goes at such a pace unlike anything King has written. King does not meander here, like he is wont to do elsewhere. He is in and out, as if we were stationed the fire at night and he was telling his daughter this story for real.
The adage holds true with King: Some of his most interesting works are when he deviates from the expected, and surely, one has to slot The Eyes of the Dragon among his best such deviations. Out of the King books I’ve read, I’m shocked this one hasn’t made it to the big or small screen yet. It would be fantastic.