The Eyes of the Dragon was originally published as a limited edition by King's own Philtrum Press in 1984. (King once explained that he published certain books - like Cycle of the Werewolf or The Gunslinger - in limited editions because he did not think they would be well-received by most of his fans.)
Although it was seen as a departure for King, The Eyes of the Dragon is not that dissimilar from several of his earlier novels. The levels of horror and gore have been turned way down, but there is plenty of magic and supernatural elements - and good prevails in the end because a group of people work selflessly to defeat an obstinate evil.
The story is set in the Kingdom of Delain, and concerns the fortunes of Peter and Thomas, the two sons of King Roland. Peter, the eldest, is a handsome and strong-willed young man who has inherited his mother's good looks and his father's love of the common folk. Everyone agrees that one day he will make a magnificent king. Thomas, who is not so smart or athletic or good-looking, muddles along in the shadow of Peter's glow, and is barely acknowledged by his father.
The third major character in the story is an evil magician named Flagg, who is also King Roland's closest advisor. Unbeknownst to the royal family, Flagg seeks to sow rebellion and chaos in the kingdom. He conspires to poison the King and have Peter framed for the crime. Peter's hasty trial and imprisonment in the Needle (a 300-foot tower in the center of town) leaves the unprepared Thomas as King, and Thomas ends up begging Flagg to remain in the palace as his advisor.
On Thomas's first night as King, he has a nightmare in which his father appears and rages: "He's killed me . . . how could you see your brother imprisoned for it?" Thomas did indeed witness Flagg giving Roland the fatal glass of wine, but discovers that he likes being King and if Peter is released, he'll have to step down. So he puts these thoughts out of his mind. But Thomas will soon learn that "guilt and secrets never rest easy".
Although Thomas sits on the throne, Flagg is now King in every way except name, and he institutes several draconian measures, including higher taxes, to foment disgust and thoughts of revolt amid the people of Delain. Flagg - who is hundreds of years old and has visited Delain in various guises over the centuries - is sometimes referred to as "the dark man". (Yes, he is the same evil Flagg from The Stand.)
Kings slips in a few references to some of his other novels. He uses the term "wild work", a phrase from Dracula that appears in Pet Sematary, refers to Flagg as "a monster . . . some horrible It", and sends various characters crawling through sewer pipes (It, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, The Running Man). Peter's idea for escape from the Needle and his extraordinary patience in carrying it out reminded me strongly of Andy Dufresne from Shawshank. Also, before the book's original publication, King told Douglas Winter that The Eyes of the Dragon is set in the Territories, the parallel world of The Talisman. "[Flagg] likes to go back and forth from our world to theirs – and to others as well." (I did not notice any obvious references to the Territories, though.)
King's narrative style is that of a classic fairy tale. The book begins, "Once, in the kingdom of Delain . . . " and has the tone of a parent reading a story to a child. Which is apt, considering its genesis. Some samples:
[S]pying, sad to say, has its own attraction. When you can see people doing something and they don't see you, even the most trivial actions seem important. After awhile, Thomas began to feel a little ashamed of what he was doing, and that was not really surprising. Spying on a person is a kind of stealing, after all - it's stealing a look at what people do when they think they are alone. But that is also one of its chief fascinations . . .Next: The Dark Tower II: The Drawing Of The Three.
Invisibility was out of his reach, but by . . . reciting a number of spells, it was possible [for Flagg] to become dim. When one was dim and a servant approached along a passageway, one simply drew aside and stood still and let the servant pass. In most cases, the servant's eyes would drop to his own feet or suddenly find something interesting to look at on the ceiling. If one passed through a room, conversation would falter, and people would look momentarily distressed . . . Torches and wall scones grew smoky. Candles sometimes blew out. It was necessary to actually hide when one was dim only if one saw someone whom one knew well - for, whether one was dim or not, these people almost always saw. Dimness was useful, but it was not invisibility. . . .
Did they live happily after ever? They did not. No one ever does, in spite of what the stories may say. They had their good days, as you do, and they had their bad days, and you know about those. They had their victories, as you do, and they had their defeats, and you know about those, too. There were times when they felt ashamed of themselves, knowing they had not done their best, and there were times when they knew they had stood where their God had meant them to stand. All I'm trying to say is that they lived as well as they could, each and every one of them; some lived longer than others, but all lived well, and bravely, and I love them all, and am not ashamed of my love.