The Eyes of the Dragon is a novel by Stephen King, but it's subtitled "A Story", and I think that gets to the heart of it quite well. Dedicated to King's daughter Naomi, it tells a simple story, almost a fairy tale, but that doesn't quite do it justice — call it a fantasy with lots of fairy tale archetypes, and you're getting closer to the truth. Although the teaser text on the paperback version tries to hype it as a "tale of terror", the truth is that Eyes of the Dragon is simply not the kind of suspenseful thriller/horror story King is most famous for writing (in fact, King has written quite a bit of stuff that isn't strictly speaking horror, but he's almost always categorized and marketed as such — go figure). The author writes on his website that he wrote it for his daughter, who had never read one of his books, professing disinterest in his spooky, supernatural, creepy-crawly horror stuff. Although she began reading Eyes of the Dragon (originally called "The Napkins") with some reluctance, it soon had its desired effect: she loved it, couldn't stop reading, and didn't want it to end.

I can vouch for the addictiveness of Eyes of the Dragon, having finished it the same day I picked it up at my friendly local public library. Some readers may find themselves annoyed by the (hyper)active narration, which sometimes interrupts the plot with meta-commentary, but since I had just finished The Princess Bride by William Goldman, I liked the self-consciousness of this approach. (Also, it was fun to read a Stephen King book after The Princess Bride since there are references to King in both its introduction and that of the "Buttercup's Baby" section that appears at the end of the 25th anniversary edition.)

I originally got The Eyes of the Dragon because I'd been told it was similar to, or even set in the same world as, King's Dark Tower series, of which I am a devoted fan. I wasn't expecting self-referential folklore, but it was a pleasant surprise. The Dark Tower connections are there, but The Eyes of the Dragon stands on its own, and vice versa — you don't have to know about one to enjoy the other, which is good.

So. About the story (no major spoilers, I promise): The Eyes of the Dragon is set in the kingdom of Delain, which at the beginning of the story is ruled by Roland the Good. Not Roland the Great, not Roland the Terrible, just Roland the Good — which is to say, the mediocre. He is more interested in hunting and feasting than matters of state, which suits his advisor, the sinister Flagg, just fine. Roland married late in life, mostly to provide his kingdom with the obligatory heirs to the throne, but he grew to love his Queen Sasha very dearly. Their two sons, Peter and Thomas, are the central characters of Eyes of the Dragon, although their family history is entertainingly written and crucial to the rest of the story, which largely concerns Flagg's treacherous plans to throw Delain into chaos and ruin.

The characters in Eyes of the Dragon are somewhat more broadly drawn than in many of King's other stories, but it works well here, especially with the (hyper) active, omniscient narrator calling the shots left and right. Too much internal monologue from the participants in the story would only confuse things here. There's foreshadowing all over the place, but the story isn't meant to be unpredictable — rather, the fun of The Eyes of the Dragon is in watching the characters perform as expected, and admirably so.

In short, if you're looking for a convoluted plot full of surprises, gross-out horror, or a huge cast of complicated characters, The Eyes of the Dragon probably isn't the book to find them, even if you're as accomplished a hunter as Roland the Good. On the other hand, if you enjoy stories for their own sake, characters who (with one notable, and pretty darn creepy, exception) try to do the right thing, with varying degrees of success, and narration that sounds like it's addressing you personally, Gentle Reader, then The Eyes of the Dragon is a lot of fun. The simple, stylized black-and-white line illustrations by David Palladini fill out what I found a very enjoyable reading experience.

King, Stephen. The Eyes of the Dragon. Illustrations by David Palladini. A Signet Book. Copyright 1987 Stephen King (illustrations copyright David Palladini).

Last (minor) update: 10 April 2012.

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