novel by Christopher Paolini
; book 1 in the Inheritance Trilogy
A short (and somewhat sarcastic) summary: Main character = Eragon, mysteeeeerious boy-child left with his aunt and uncle by wandering mother, father unknown. Boy finds mysteeeeerious stone. Turns out to be dragon egg. Boy raises dragon and bonds with it strongly. Bad guys come and decimate boy's house and kill his uncle. Boy swears revenge. Boy's secret dragon is discovered by mysteeeerious storyteller who turns out to be master swordsman and random magic user. The hunt for the bad guys begins, and boy searches for his destiny as a legendary Dragon Rider (of course, that must be capitalized). Eragon goes through traditional bouts of training and learning about himself under the stern tutelage of old wise traveling companion. Along the way he gains and loses friends, and rescues a mysteeeerious woman from a horrible dungeon while never straying from his quest to put right all that is wrong a world oppressively ruled by an evil king.
This book has gotten lots of attention since it first came out, partly because the author is so young. He was fifteen when he started the book, and was nineteen when it was published. I do not generally like to judge based on age, especially since I am a young writer myself, but when I read this book, I could TELL that the writer was either young or an immature writer. Though it seems to be being kept on the down-low, this book was published by the author's parents' publishing company, and only later discovered by one editor at Knopf and re-edited and repackaged and re-released under that label. I believe that if this book had meandered its way to publishing houses the usual way, it would have been rejected as unpublishable, for reasons I will discuss in depth here.
Christopher Paolini himself, in his own words, describes his story thus: "Eragon is an archetypal hero story, filled with exciting action, dangerous villains, and fantastic locations. There are dragons and elves, sword fights and unexpected revelations, and of course, a beautiful maiden who's more than capable of taking care of herself."
I would argue that this book is not an "archetypal hero story" so much as an overused and overly traditional Tolkienien "epic," with "epic" in quotes because it lacks exactly that epic nature that made the world of Lord of the Rings so rich. There was absolutely nothing new or "unexpected" in this book (though the author claims there are "revelations"), and if a reader is excited by this book it is because he or she has never been exposed to the dozens of fantasy and science fiction epics from which this author pulled his influences. My feeling was that this book was nothing special because, if I may be so blunt, "it's been done," and it's been done better.
Though I have to give the single prop that by standards of TECHNICAL editing it was a smooth novel (I, a professional editor, did not notice a single typographical error), I must say that content-wise it was an editorial mess. The fact that this novel breaks about a billion rules of thumb in the writing industry raises my suspicions that it was not edited by a very discerning eye. Here are a multitude of examples, unavoidably coated in spoiler dust.
My complaints regarding the writing style itself:
Every imaginable permutation of the word "said" is used. If the reader cannot tell how someone is saying something by what they are saying, it is likely that the dialogue has been written sloppily. "'You're not thinking,' admonished Brom." Yes, that is an admonishment without you telling us so. Leave it out. "'Get on with the story,' he said impatiently." Well, if one person is urging another to get on with it, it stands to reason that it's being said impatiently. Running into "'Sorry,' apologized Brom" made me cringe. The fact that Brom said "Sorry" means that he apologized, so use "said." You can deviate from "said" if for some reason HOW the sentence is said is not obvious, such as volume ("he whispered") or intent ("he said sarcastically," if it isn't obvious that that's a sarcastic comment anyway). Leave out the decorations because they're tacky.
Unnecessary description is inserted with maddening frequency. I am not usually a reader of traditional fantasy, and traditional fantasy does tend to be more flowery than the hard stuff, but either way random descriptions should not just be thrown into the mix. Eragon is waking up and stretching. Suddenly we get a description of the items on his night table, including the random information that he likes to look at one of the objects on it frequently. In the meantime, while we are getting this rush of information, Eragon is putting on his shoes. He then does not proceed to touch, pick up, or look at anything on the night table, and none of it is ever mentioned again. Also, people and places just get sudden paragraphs of description. We're fighting an Urgal and all of a sudden . . . drop some description on us. While he's rushing at Eragon with drooling fangs, no less. By all means, describe the fangs, slipping the adjectives in gracefully. But don't give us a run-down of a typical Urgal when we're a lot more interested in whether those fangs are going into Eragon's head.
And lastly, too many words, phrases, and concepts seem to be entirely lifted from other well-known works. Word choice seemed as though it was the author's attempt to use all his SAT words; it was verbose and flowery as if on purpose, trying to impress with vocabulary that would have been better used sparingly. The similarity of some people's and places' names to those of Tolkien have not gone unnoticed by seasoned fantasy readers; I have heard several people call this book "Aragorn" without even noticing that they weren't saying it right, not to mention things like Ardwen (compared with Arwen), Isenstar (compared with Isengard), and Isidar (compared with Isildur)--and there are a LOT more. A ridiculous number of phrases seem to be something I've heard before, though I'm not sure where; for example, near the beginning someone is touching a wrapped package repeatedly, "as if to reassure herself that it was still there." I mentioned this to a friend and said, "That's FROM something." He replied, "It's FROM everything!" Far too often, ridiculously overused or clichéd similes and metaphors are used, such as tears being described as "liquid diamonds." It is less like this book was written and more like it was sewn together from the torn apart products of others, like some old quilt on which the stitches are showing. (How's that for an original simile?)
And now, criticism regarding the content:
Two words: Unpronounceable names. Why is the land called "Alagaësia"? It's pronounced "Al-uh-GAY-zee-uh" according to his pronunciation guide, which means his phonics have a pretty weird set of rules, but since other words with umlauts appear all over the place and somehow get pronounced as if there is no umlaut willy-nilly, it's assumed that the main purpose of the umlaut is to make a word look cool and foreign. There is plenty of other delightful language fun, besides the random umlauts: Take for instance magic words with no damn vowels, or words that possess random apostrophes as if they are contractions, though no letters have been left out. Why are they called "the Ra'zac"? What is being left out between Ra and zac? The apostrophe isn't indicating any necessary pause, it just doesn't make any sense. And how does one pronounce "Draumr kópa" anyway?? Yes, you have succeeded in making it all exotic. I guess that was the point? Okay, so maybe these words aren't actually *unpronounceable* so much as they do not seem to follow any spelling conventions beyond "this looks like a cool fantasy word, let's spell it this way!"
Helpfully (of course), Paolini has included for us pronunciation guides and dictionaries in the appendices, though he warns us in said appendices that he is not translating Eragon's magic utterances word for word in order--and I quote--"to save the reader from Eragon's atrocious grammar." (In other words, we are supposed to believe that he, like Tolkien, created entire other languages for these books, but since these "languages" are unlikely to hold up to intense scrutiny by any linguist--if any linguist could be made to care--there is the excuse that Eragon doesn't really speak it right.)
And speaking of Tolkien. . . .
Okay. Attractive, complex map on inside cover. Flowery language. Elves are fair, beautiful, long-lived people with another language. Dwarves are short, stocky, bearded people who wear chain mail and use axes. Dragons breathe fire. Creatures called Urgals are fairly uncomfortable with the sun and speak a guttural language, though there are the "elite" forms of these which don't seem to mind the sun and have multiple times the strength and endurance. All swords seem to have names. Hmm, except for the fact that the name "Urgal" is used and people can actually ride the dragons, I think this might just be Middle-Earth. I kept expecting to see a hobbit.
On the same note, it seems the author felt compelled to cover nearly every fantasy-epic plotline known to man, and kept kind of changing his mind about what focus to use. First there's the whole Luke Skywalker thing; he comes to terms with his identity as a Dragon Rider and leaves his homeland in the company of a mysterious stranger who knows too much and can train him. We have the actual training and traveling, him kind of coming into his own--common fantasy coming of age and whatnot. Learning his new skills: Swordsmanship, dragon-riding, magic, reading . . . he gets all his tools for adulthood and for being a hero. And as soon as those who killed his uncle are destroyed (robbing him of an immediate goal), just in time, he starts having convenient dreams about a woman in a dungeon--who he of course has to rescue. What is a fantasy without a woman to rescue? Oh WAIT! She's been poisoned! QUICK! We must go on a quest to find the antidote in a race against time, though at no point during the frenzied journey are we actually worried that the girl is going to die. THAT wouldn't happen; love-interest girls are only allowed to have sexy and alluring "bad things" happen to them, like an attractive scar on the cheek or a tragic past where daddy didn't love her. They don't die of a slow-acting poison, making the hero's trip completely forfeit. Don't forget the proverbial choosing of sides, where upon his arrival the hero must decide where to cast his alliance, though of course there are spies and baddies among the "good guys." (And of course this place where they will find an antidote for that poison is also the place where Eragon can get full training in swordsmanship and magic so he can continue to kick ass.) What will he do? Will it be a wonderful epic quest during which he will overthrow the evil king and become a reluctant but benevolent ruler? YOU BET. Although that is just my speculation, considering there are still two books to go (the next book is called Eldest, though I think at least someone will sue Paolini if he decides to call the third volume Return of the King).
Additionally, the story contains many details that might have been included in the interest of fleshing out the world of Alagaësia, but they were rather pointless meanderings rather than descriptions that mattered later and added to the richness of the novel. I got the idea that the author just wanted to tell us some neat detail he'd worked out, one of those things that authors are supposed to KNOW but not tell the audience unless it MATTERS, and in order to squeeze it in he just randomly has the main character have these questions occur to him so that someone else can go off on a tangent explaining the finer points of, say, the communication system they use in this half-deserted mountain. Sometimes it just seems he hasn't quite figured out what inventive little blurbs should nevertheless be left out.
Then there is the matter of the overly used character: The random fountain-of-wisdom old man who obviously has a curious connection to the main character. (Can you say Luke, I am your father? Okay, so he's too old to be his father, but what he ends up being is close enough . . . never mind, spoilers bad. Besides, he's a lot more like Obi-Wan.) He hides information from Eragon because "oh that would be dangerous for you to know now" or "I will keep that to myself." Translation: Plot-wise, Eragon needs to be ignorant of that in order to make all the supposed revelations of the story more powerful, so we'll just make him a stubborn old man who talks all too freely once the dramatic revelations have passed. Completely manipulating a character to have all-too-convenient whims about what information he drops . . . this is just bad form. (Of course, he later justifies it by saying that some of those secrets are not his to tell, but still, awful convenient, don't you think? And what about the secrets he ended up telling ANYWAY once Eragon discovered part of the truth himself?) It is akin to the Scarecrow coming to Glinda the Good Witch at the end of The Wizard of Oz and asking her, "WHY didn't you just tell Dorothy to click her heels before she had to go through all this?" "She wouldn't have believed me!" says Glinda. Translation: "If it had been that simple, we couldn't have had a movie!"
Foreshadowing? Yes. Often, and obvious. Even goes so far as to have a woman who tells Eragon's fortune, with deliberately dubious prophecies that supposedly will only make sense after they come true. (Incidentally, the fortune-teller is shamelessly based on the author's own sister, and bears her name.) She prophecies that a family member will betray him, and he doesn't think his only living cousin is capable of doing so? My guess is, he's going to somehow find his father, and his father will then give him up to the bad guys. A traitor! Heavens, no! More speculation on my part, of course, but then again, this story has mostly been written before, and it's more or less a toss-up to see if Darth Vader turns out to be Luke's . . . *ahem* Eragon's father, or if it's more of a Sauron/Saruman kind of deal.
How about physical impossibilities? Yes, we're reading a story that has a talking dragon in it, so maybe we're supposed to suspend disbelief, but it seems mostly the laws of physics apply in Alagaësia. So. A bad storm descends upon the boy and his dragon, and before the poor creature has managed to fold her wings appropriately, she is caught by the wind and blown over, and she does not seem to be strong enough to tuck her wings in against the wind to avoid getting blown over again. This right here could maybe be ignored, because I don't think it was ever explained how big her wings are, so maybe she'd lose control if there were really strong winds, though we'd have to ignore that she'd have to have very STRONG wings to get her giant dragon body off the ground. But get this. Eragon, a teenage boy, runs over to help Saphira close her wings. Now, if a mighty dragon cannot summon the strength to close her sails against the wind, exactly how much will it help to have a little human teenager pushing on them? So, this is just silly to be sure, but I think I've figured out why it was written that way. Being a writer myself, I know this syndrome very well: It's called "I just really wanted to write this scene" disease. Whole stories are constructed around these gratuitous scenes, the ones the author saw in the mind early in the story-creating process. It ended up in the story rough around the edges because it just doesn't quite go.
Oh yeah, don't forget when Eragon accidentally does magic for the first time to defeat an Urgal. Background: He doesn't know any wizards (has yet to find out that his traveling companion can use magic). He doesn't know anything about magic and if he did he wouldn't believe that he had any. But oh look . . . under attack, he not only uses the magic against his foe, but just happens to find the necessary magic word on his tongue and says it in conjunction with his attack (without which, he finds out later, nothing would have happened). He had heard his companion say the magic word for "fire" once. He did not know it was a magic word then; he thought it was a curse word. Why would he randomly say it? That is a hell of an intuition, even given the dire circumstances, and considering it never happened before or after, that's just too much of a coincidence for us to swallow just in the name of letting Eragon have his little revelation of "OMG I gotz magic??" A little side effect, I think, of not ironing out all the rules of the land before writing it, and not tweaking earlier writings to match the consistent rules.
Because he is needed to help sort through some secret information, Eragon is taught how to read. In a week. Yeah. (Sure maybe he could recognize some letters and be of some help in finding keywords, but all of a sudden after that he mostly reads like anyone else. 'Nuff said.) He learns the ancient magic language similarly easily, and though he was only taught it for the purpose of using magic, he is still somehow able to have a complex conversation with an elf using only that language, and understands her giving him directions to an unfamiliar place. I am having trouble swallowing this.
Pet peeve: At least three or four times in this novel it is mentioned that someone "cries a single tear" or has a "single tear" running down his or her face. Why does it always have to be one tear? This is not the movies, you can have torrential crying in a book if you want to. This does not strike me as romantic. This strikes me as obviously fake and contrived, not true emotion but more to write a cool visual scene. I am really turned off by this.
Another pet peeve: A minor villain is destroyed at the end; since it is a trilogy, it cannot be the MAIN villain (assumingly it's the oppressive king), but the major villain of the book is heroically killed by the main character, who is of course scarred physically and emotionally by the experience (but not, of course, on his face, only upon skin that will show if he takes off his battle gear in the privacy of a secluded room, preferably with a sexy elf woman watching). During the battle, details are revealed about the villain's past that make the reader understand why he turned evil; in other words, his actions are sort of justified so that we sympathize a bit before he, ya know, DIES. This slight redemption of the evil guy is only slightly preferable to the plot where the villain is just evil for no reason, but it's only a step up, and not a big one. Of COURSE the villain was scarred for life by losses he incurred as a child. It's only natural. And instead of being the giant revelation the author was expecting to unveil, that was my exact thought: Well, of course.
Overall, I just think that this book was written as though it had a template or blueprint for "traditional fantasy novel" and the details and names were simply filled in. I couldn't help feeling the entire time I was reading it that I had read this story before, nothing was much of a surprise, and things that didn't make sense or got in the way of a conflicting original vision were smoothed over with excuses or deliberate muddling of motives. I think that in order to write something so traditional, a writer needs something special, a unique twist or slant, and this just hasn't got it. (In other words, I'm not saying that writing an "archetypal fantasy epic" is BAD; I'm saying that it needs to not be a rehashing of overused themes that were INVENTED--not derived from mythology or legend, but INVENTED--by classic writers.) The boy and his powerful companion having an intimate relationship? Done, in everything from Anne McCaffrey to freaking Digimon. The hero quest to punish the baddies and bring the good guys back into power? Done, in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Lush descriptions of landscapes and surroundings? Done by Tolkien of course, but more as a background to action rather than in stagnant heaps of detail. Mysterious companions to whom there is more than meets the eye? I don't even want to think about all the books and movies that have done that. I can't pick out a single thing that this book has that has never been done before, the characters didn't interest or capture me, the storytelling was riddled with too many attempts to be grand that I was just entirely turned off by it.
In short, I very much doubt I will enjoy reading the rest of the Inheritance Trilogy. But you can read more for yourself if you choose, by looking at other reviews and checking out the Web site at www.alagaesia.com .