novel by Christopher Paolini
; book 4 (final volume) in the Inheritance Cycle
This ultimate volume of what's often known as "the Eragon series" was published in 2011 and became a bestseller immediately. However, much like its predecessors Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, this book had basic storytelling problems, cliché and "borrowed" plot elements, unrealistic characters, and a bloated word count.
A short summary: Main character = Eragon, who became a Dragon Rider to fight the evil Empire. His half-brother was taken from him and brainwashed to serve the evil king, and he's joined forces with the rebel group called the Varden. Eragon has to go around his home country of Alagaësia and fight Bad Guys, fulfill prophecies, creepily pursue his love interest, lead the rebels once their leader is conveniently kidnapped, and search for a final way to defeat the Dark Lord.
More on the history and structure of this disaster is available in the entries on Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr, but unfortunately, despite the experience Christopher Paolini has had since he first began his journey from self-published-wunderkind to celebrated-bestselling-manchild, he has not learned from his mistakes. He's been decorating them.
Despite the train wreck, this was my favorite of the Inheritance series. It was enough less of a chore to read than Brisingr that I very nearly considered rating this two stars out of five when I put in my reviews on book-review sites. But then I realized I was thinking that way based on hating it less rather than liking it more, and figured that objectively I'm afraid it still deserves a bottom-of-the-barrel rating. I give it one star.
First off, Paolini corrected a number of things that he's had trouble with in previous volumes. He introduced horses that actually get tired. He introduced characters who dislike the protagonists and don't automatically get written as evil or get punished for it. He acknowledged that the elf Arya would be a better fighter than plucky farm boy Eragon owing to over a century of practice. He wrote a couple of conversations that felt like conversations. There was no Super Special explanation for why Cousin Roran was such a badass. Nobody got brought back to life in a cheesy touching resurrection. And Eragon didn't get married and live happily ever after (or turn out to be related to Princess Leia).
But what I appreciated most about this book was that it managed to evoke real emotions sometimes--and what the characters went through wasn't always completely one-dimensional. I felt less like I was being fed lines and more like what the characters experienced was actually born from their situations combined with their mindsets. There was some decent human emotion describing Eragon's self-doubt, inner conflicts, sorrow, and crushing fear under his great responsibility. Roran's protectiveness and savagery as a man of war worked for me too (when it wasn't weird or over the top). Paolini regularly tried way too hard and forced the emotions until they turned into cloying thesaurus poop, but sometimes he did okay. (There were also certain bits that I realized I felt the way I did because of my personal experiences; in other words, at times I brought my own emotions to the table instead of actually being affected by the words, much like a fanboy loves a dragon no matter how poorly it's written.) Eragon has a "This Used To Be My Playground" moment. I'm a sucker for that, because I'm a huge nostalgic hippie.
Eragon's philosophizing moments and contradictory feelings were sometimes organic and they worked. It mostly just made me sad that this happened so rarely in the book. This kinda made it seem like he has the capability to . . . maybe . . . evoke emotion in his writing, even though he almost never hits the bullseye. The thing he really needs to learn is how and when to back off. Emotional evocation is easy. Humans do it eagerly when they read. Just get out of the way, Paolini. Get out of the way of yourself.
But let's get on to why you guys actually want to read my essays. All the stuff I hate!
The biggest problem is still the obnoxious decoration. Sentences aren't Christmas trees. Stop decorating them.
Even at this late stage, Paolini hasn't improved his tone-deaf prose or his tendency to decorate awkward sentences instead of pruning them. We still constantly encounter overdescription--and not just of weapons and clothes and faces and courtyards, but unneeded comparisons of perfectly good images to other things in a ham-fisted attempt to enhance them. We can picture post-battle smoke as viewed from the sky just fine without being told that it "hung over Belatona like a blanket of hurt, anger, and sorrow," and it would actually be more poignant if he would stop forcing these associations onto every image. Let us feel it ourselves. Stop telling us what every cloud of smoke "means."
If just about every time an image pops up, the reader has to put up with comparisons and weird personification, we get seasick. A little of this is okay. Weaving it into EVERY SENTENCE is not. Having no natural understanding of voice and tone and no knack for writing character cannot be amended or hidden through excessive adjective insertion. Whenever I read a Paolini book, I feel like I was promised a comfortable shirt and was given an ill-fitting, scratchy garment whose tailor elected to "fix" its flaws with a frigging Bedazzler.
Some particularly egregious examples:
- we would fall before him like dry leaves before a winter storm
- the dragons' blood rained from the sky like a summer downpour
- her small pink tongue was visible; it lay like a soft, moist slug
- musty aroma clung to the girl, like the smell of a forest floor on a warm summer day
- which seemed to press against Roran like a thick, heavy blanket made of the most unpleasant substance he could imagine
- the plume of dancing water, which glittered like handfuls of diamonds tossed into the air
- the bags under her eyes like small, sad smiles
- with eyes like chips of obsidian
- Blood trailed from the tip in long, twisting ribbons that slowly separated into glistening drops, like orbs of polished coral
- there emerged Thorn, red as blood and glittering like a million shifting stars
- The passageway smelled like damp straw and moth wings
- an overwhelming sense of dread clutched at Eragon, pressing down on him like a pile of sodden fleeces
- putting each morsel of food into her mouth as carefully as if it were a hollow orb of glass that might shatter at any sudden movement
- he thought the mountains looked like so many molars erupting from the brown gums of the earth
The description also occurs at very inappropriate times. It consistently interrupts the action, resulting in situations like having a man running toward Eragon urgently, only to pause for two paragraphs while description of the man, his family, their history, and philosophy surrounding these folks is imparted to us in indulgent narration. There's also an annoying pattern Paolini had in just under half the chapters: Some sort of action opens the chapter, and then we get at least a paragraph of description of the surroundings. If that didn't happen, more often than not we got a flashback that led up to whatever the current situation was. It got very repetitive.
And speaking of repetitive, Paolini has been doing this thing where he latches onto a certain phrase and keeps using it. For example:
- Relief and trepidation swept through Eragon.
- Relief swept through Eragon.
- As his hand closed around the hilt, a sense of relief swept through him.
- Relief swept through Eragon as he saw his cousin alive and well.
- An urge to strike the king swept through Roran.
- Dismay swept through Eragon.
- Eragon watched for a minute longer, then a sudden rush of emotion swept through him.
- Wonder swept through Eragon, wonder that such a thing had come to pass.
Add that to all the metaphor
s of leaves getting swept away in a storm of some sort, and this book just starts getting silly to read. Other overused words include "crimson
" (over 30 times) and "growled
" (regularly overused as a speech tag, nearly 50 times). At one point Eragon says "How is it you keep besting me?" and the speech tag is "he growled, far from pleased." Got that? He's growling. And far from pleased. Because Arya is beating him at sword-fighting. I'm sure you needed to know that this did not please him, in case the angry phrase itself and the GROWLING didn't tell you enough yet. And just in case you were wondering, we get a paragraph of detail on Eragon's thumbs. Is your life complete now?
Narrating the sacred
Paolini spends far too long on an irrelevant scene in which Saphira flies them through a storm for no real good reason, and we're treated to several "poetic" pages full of descriptions of the beautiful post-storm night sky. The serenity and power of his observations is yanked away immediately as Paolini begins to narrate to us what exactly this is supposed to "mean" to Eragon. He babbles on for a while and then hands down a trite little revelation about how people probably wouldn't fight each other anymore if they could see what he's seen. It cheapens it so much.
You know what would have driven home the majesty and beauty he was going for?
Some freakin' silence.
Don't narrate the sacred, okay? Just invoking an image and then leaving us to marinate in that would have actually been good storytelling--a good character-building lesson in perspective for Eragon. Instead, we get a litany of hollow platitudes yammered into our ears, rambling about how small he'd once thought the world was and how big it seemed now, and specific ways in which he "was once an ant is now an eagle" or some crap, and on and on about how he's reorienting his life because of this perspective shift.
"And to what do we owe the unexpected pleasure of this visit, Your Highness? Werecats have always been noted for their secrecy and their solitude, and for remaining apart from the conflicts of the age, especially since the fall of the Riders. One might even say that your kind has become more myth than fact over the past century. Why, then, do you now choose to reveal yourselves?"
Thank you, Ms. Exposition!
There's this thing called "As you know, Bob." This is bleedingly, horrifyingly terrible exposition. It is so written that it's insulting.
Silly dialogue is also frequently praised by other characters, proving once again that even Paolini's characters love Paolini.
Here are a few lines of dialogue I thought were ridiculous:
- "These are customs older than time itself." (No they're not.)
- "I fight to win, not to lose. . . . " (I can't imagine why.)
- "Nor do I want to sit alone in my tent, watching mine beard grow." (What's wrong with thine English, Orik?)
- "It doesn't rhyme, but then, you can't expect me to compose proper verse on the spur of the moment." (Yeah, who do you think I am, the great poet Paolini?)
Lord of the Rings, of course: Elves are said to have come from across the silver sea. There is a line of Gollum dialogue.
Dune: I still think Elva is inspired by Alia. But the jig was up on Paolini cribbing from Herbert when he named a dragon "Bid'Daum." I'm not kidding; he really did that.
Monty Python: Seriously, the insults still sound like the French Taunter.
The red herrings were painful. Paolini names a place "the Vault of Souls," invents the concept of a dragon living on after death in its heart of hearts, suggests that these dragon hearts are what gives Galbatorix his power, and then denies that the Vault of Souls might contain dragon hearts to be tapped to combat the dark lord. It's glossed over, then denied outright, and then finally it of course turns out to be exactly what it seemed. It was also obvious, as soon as we found out that oaths can be broken if a true name changes, that Murtagh was going to escape Galbatorix's control by doing so. Even better: he did so through the power of looooove, like a Sailor Moon episode.
Contradictions: Ugh. Brace yourselves.
- During a cheeky "history" ramble at the beginning, Paolini retells the events of his previous three books and promptly makes several misleading explanations which suggest he hasn't read his own books.
- Katrina's pregnant at the start of the book and was already showing in the previous book. The baby isn't born until well after a huge denouement, before which occurred the planning, attack, and defeat of the dark lord, followed by rebuilding and a few uprisings. Apparently all this happened in seven months.
- A newborn baby "smiles" at Eragon. Sorry, dude. Babies that young can't smile. That was gas.
- Healing a baby's face takes longer than killing Galbatorix. Why.
- Post-baby-face-healing, the elves praise Eragon and say that his amazing feat in doing so was far beyond anything any of their spellcasters could have achieved.
- Eragon starts eating meat again, displaying no recognition that he decided earlier that eating meat was excusable only if other food sources were unavailable or if he thought it'd be too rude to refuse.
- Paolini has stated in interviews as well as in his ancient language rules that the suffix "ya" makes stuff plural. He proceeds to break that rule about 140 times in this book.
- Elva gets shamed and manipulated by Eragon in a horribly offensive way. She refuses to come on a mission. Someone dies. Eragon blames her, threatens her, makes her cry, forces her to apologize, and shames her into helping him next time. (Elva is not quite two years old, and was forced to mature at an accelerated rate because of something Eragon accidentally did to her when she was a baby. She looks like she's about four, and talks like a grown-up, but has had a terrible life of constant pain.) When confronting Galbatorix, he points out how weak it is to bring a child in, and he claims she came of her own free will.
- Galbatorix tells Eragon he didn't become king by fighting fair. He then proceeds to relent and let Eragon have a fair fight (albeit with Murtagh). This "distraction" leads to a revelation that allows Eragon to mess with Galbatorix's head and he ends up destroying himself. Splendid.
- The Good Guys decide to change the way magic works to let dwarves and Urgals become Riders. They leave out the werecats, even though werecats showed up as one of the forces to be reckoned with as a race in this book.
- Eragon can control reality at the end of the book because he knows the name of the ancient language. He then proceeds to act as though he is powerless to change some things about his life and others' lives that really suck: Some aspects of Elva's situation (he can't leave her with power but still take her pain?), crappy sexism that's pointed out to him, the loss of a sentimentally important artifact, and some prophecy about how he has to leave Alagaësia forever. Oh please.
Nonsense/Contrived events: Lots of this too.
And finally, a few author fails:
- A special spear that was thought lost to the ages is recovered in the first chapter when someone tries to kill Saphira with it. It's a lance designed specifically to kill dragons. And then, despite having struck home on both Saphira and Thorn, it doesn't actually kill any dragons until they try to use it on Galbatorix's dragon. Then it works fine!
- Roran creates a ruse that is so improbable that it was stupid. It depended on such dumb chance events that I couldn't swallow it. Especially when an enemy soldier who's suspicious of Roran is totally willing to just take a sip of his alcoholic beverage. Sounds totally like what military dudes would do before retreating!
- Sometimes, using the ancient language makes something become true (like saying "fire" and suddenly there is fire). Other times, it's suggested you can't possibly say something in the ancient language unless it already is true, so it's a litmus test for lies. That doesn't make sense. Especially if you can bully someone into swearing loyalty to you which MAKES it true. Wouldn't a lie just BECOME true if you said it in the ancient language?
- A cartoon villain scene occurs when Eragon and Arya are left chained up while a monster hatches from an egg. Once it hatches, it will eat them. Oh no! But of course, the culprits from a gore-obsessed religion don't stay to watch them get eaten alive. They stick around long enough to laugh at their plight, then leave the room. Which of course leads to them being able to escape in time. Why is the video game boss so surprised when they emerge alive? It knows it signed up to be a Bond villain.
- When Eragon is directionless and doesn't know how to lead the Varden to victory, a prophecy is invoked, which leads him directly to a giant deus ex machina. He goes on the prophesied quest, finds exactly what he needs, and also finds out that deceased dragons have been watching over him since before he became a Rider. It was they who manipulated reality and his life to make everything improbable happen all along. Yes, Dragon Guardian Angels. Explains everything! Plus they find secret dragon eggs and therefore the dragons won't go extinct after all! Happy happy.
- Eragon seems fine (though sad) over leaving Alagaësia to go train dragons in the east. When people keep asking him why he has to go and "never return," he invokes a prophecy Angela made. Angela also prophesied that he would have an epic romance. He didn't.
- That said, even though he and Arya do not have sex (or even kiss), they exchange true names, which is much more intimate and suggests handing over ultimate control of each other. It's suggested strongly that they decide not to get together because of conflicting circumstances, not because of lack of feeling. Eragon clearly won the girl over by the end, even if it didn't pan out for him. (His dragon got laid, though! Saphira lost her virginity to Arya's dragon!)
Paolini's how-to on removing suspense from your novels: Eragon's cousin Roran and several other members of the Varden get crushed under a crumbling wall. Roran is the only one who survives because he happened to be underneath some kind of support thing when it fell. Paolini, you see, you're trying to inject your story with reasonable doubt about who might die, but you're doing it really poorly if a wall collapses and EVERYONE DIES EXCEPT THE IMPORTANT GUY. It doesn't fool us into thinking your main characters are actually in mortal danger.
A character like Roran could only die in self-sacrifice because there was no other way, or in a prophesied scenario, or, I don't know, saving a disabled child who's holding a puppy or something.
Paolini doesn't trust his audience. He thinks we're kinda stupid. (And I guess we are, if we're still reading these books expecting to get some kind of pleasure out of the experience.) Anyway, I've noticed it's very common for him to say something that we can completely understand, but then just in case we're extraordinarily thick, he'll have an ignorant character show up and ask questions so he can explain stuff to us that was usually pretty obvious.
Eragon is sometimes horny in a creepy way. Roran acts sexist, especially when he's doing so while pretending to give the finger to gender roles. And Chris still hasn't figured out the difference between writing a strong hero and writing an antisocial bastard.
Paolini's narration also suggests that disabled people would be better off born dead, repeatedly compares people bending over to "like a cripple" or "like an old man with rheumatism," and advocates animal cruelty by having no one object to the werecats compelling regular cats to kill themselves in battle. There is too much torture--with details that involve the famous geological comparisons--and sometimes he includes so many details that it sounds like he's trying to prove he did the research this time.
And finally. . . .
Are you sure Eragon isn't you, Paolini?
Quote: "Wherever he looked, he saw an overwhelming amount of detail, but he was convinced there was even more that he was not perceptive enough to notice."
I found this sentence kind of ironic. Eragon's been told that he's not actually SEEING what he's looking at, and therefore he's trying to see more. However, very much like his author, Eragon doesn't understand that detail is NOT what you need in order to fully and properly understand something. What I'd like is for Paolini himself to stop fixating on details and understand essence.
A practically novel-length version of this review is published at http://swankivy.com/writing/essays/info/inheritance/inheritance.html .