The Inheritance Cycle: Brisingr

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This is my ABRIDGED VERSION of my essay/review about Brisingr by Christopher Paolini. Read the really long version here.

Everyone's been asking me to review the third book in this series, so here I go.

The author still has basic storytelling problems. The main one I keep noticing is that he is trying to work description or exposition into the action more, but it still reads like he's stopping the "movie," ZOOMING IN ON EVERYTHING, and then pushing PLAY again when he's done. We nearly always get an extremely detailed description of every weapon, every person, every room, and every setting the characters encounter, and the adjectives used aren't connected to actions or attitudes. Or if it's exposition, maybe we'll have someone cast a spell, and then the action pauses while we endure two paragraphs of narration about other caveats to the spell that could have been applied but aren't useful here, and what might happen if it fails, and all kinds of trivia about other magics that are like this one--none of which end up being important in the scene. He's still failing to filter these observations through the minds of his characters, which dooms the narrative voice because it takes us OUT of the moment every single time.

He has also made some poor choices with apparently unintentionally sexist phrases and disturbing attitudes toward women, most notably by "telling" that Arya is brave and independent and capable but "showing" that she is not any of these things because she needs to be rescued AGAIN. There were so many other people Eragon could have had to rescue from imminent death, and yet again Paolini chose Arya as the damsel in distress. She holds her own and later saves his ass once too, but framing women like this suggests that the strong ones are the exception to the rule. And sometimes, Roran talks like a rapist. It's really uncomfortable:

Katrina: "My, you are bold, dear sir. Most bold indeed. I'm not sure I should be alone with you, for fear you might take liberties with me."
Roran:"Liberties, eh? Well, since you already consider me a scoundrel, I might as well enjoy some of these liberties."
Katrina:"You're a hard man to argue with, Roran Stronghammer."

So, take note, dudes. If a girl says she's worried being alone with you might lead to you pressuring her, you might as well actually do it since she thinks that way about you anyway. Such coquettish banter, this.

Add to that the fact that Saphira's narration is really obnoxious and recoil in horror at some of the untidy retcons Paolini tried to force into the story, and you have a very good reason to believe this fellow has not learned from experience.

Bad Narration: Stylistically, narration is pretty terrible in this book. The similes and metaphors are especially galling, and I noticed that a disturbing number of his comparisons involved geological themes. I mean everything was hard "as diamonds" or heavy "as lead" or bright "as gold." No one can just be "distinguished"; she's "the most distinguished, like an emerald resting on a bed of brown autumn leaves." Someone should tell Paolini we don't need everything compared to something else in order to understand it. Even a monster's blood, which happens to be blue-green, is described as "not unlike the verdigris that forms on aged copper." Coming across "Her tears appeared like rivers of silvered glass" just made me groan. And how about "Red as a ruby dipped in blood, red as iron hot to forge, red as a burning ember of hate and anger. . . ." So . . . was it red? As red as HATE and stuff? Don't forget to dip red things in other red things so you can go off on how red they are! And let's not forget "A flock of starlings darted across the afternoon sky, like fish through the ocean." 'Cause "a group of animals moved through their habitat, like another group of animals moving through their habitat" really helps us see it better? And the biggest problem with it is it's not just distracting and unnecessary; sometimes they place an alternate image in your mind and draw your attention AWAY from the object or situation he is describing.

The unnecessary description is especially pronounced when it comes to describing weapons. Paolini devotes an inordinate amount of time to his descriptions of swords and other tools. One of the shorter descriptions was as follows: "[A] bizarre implement: a single-edged weapon, two and a half feet long, with a full tang, scale grips, a vestigial crossguard, and a broad, flat blade that widened and was scalloped near the end, a shape reminiscent of a dragon wing." I found one sword description--for a sword the protagonist only used for a couple chapters--at a mind-blowing two hundred words, and don't even get me started on the chapter where Eragon actually makes a sword that matters. Twelve pages of excruciating detail explain how exactly he made the sword, and it reads like an instruction manual. (Because Paolini freely admits he was fascinated with a certain Japanese swordmaking book at the time. Gee, you can't tell.) It's like if you just wanted to watch a crime thriller and twenty minutes of the footage involved an autopsy detailing exactly how the victim died. Some of the descriptions actually truly do not make sense, such as the description of Arya's voice as "Her low, rich voice contained hints of rustling pine needles and gurgling brooks and music played on reed pipes." Can you imagine that? Someone's VOICE having all those things in it? Considering the gurgling, I think Arya may need a doctor.

And let's not forget our old friend the unnecessary speech tags.

"But how could you prove that?" objected Eragon.


I shouldn't have to say it again, but if the WORDS THEMSELVES are an apology, an agreement, or an objection, you DO NOT NEED TO IDENTIFY THEM AS SUCH with your speech tags? ARE YOU ALLERGIC TO THE WORD "SAID," MY DEAR BOY?

("Yes, yes he is," said the exasperated author of this essay.)

And my favorite, of course, was when I encountered a single sentence that was 307 words long. Also known as "this is where the editor fell asleep." The narration described all the dwarves who were sitting around a table, and the sentence contained 9 semicolons, 28 commas, and 26 descriptive adjectives. When the final dwarf was described as "she of the nut-brown skin marred only by a thin, crescent-shaped scar high upon her left cheekbone, she of the satin-bright hair bound underneath a silver helm wrought in the shape of a snarling wolf's head, she of the vermilion dress and the necklace of flashing emeralds set in squares of gold carved with lines of arcane runes" . . . I really thought I was going to shoot myself.

Bad Dialogue: Two big problems. One: everyone--no matter their education--talks as though they are royalty, and it is uncomfortably unnatural. Roran, the illiterate farm boy, says "You dote upon her words as if each one were a diamond, and your gaze lingers upon her as if you were starving and she a grand feast arrayed an inch beyond your reach." You'd never guess his job is beating people to death with a hammer. Two: Other people's reaction is to praise their verbal abilities. This happens like six different times in the book, and I am convinced it is an attempted Jedi mind trick on Paolini's part. A character says something awkwardly phrased, long-winded, and overly ornate, and another character tells him how poetic he is or expresses amazement and surprise at his eloquence. Is he just trying to convince us that's so? (The "cursing," which happens a couple times when characters who are very angry spew out a stream of obscenities, is especially inappropriate. They all sound like they've been taking insult lessons from the French Taunter.)

And I probably don't have to say why a fantasy novel that actually contains the phrase "Die, puny human!" should be punished and reminded to go on the paper.

Predictable Plot Elements: This book is riddled with "revelations" that are written as if they will be a surprise to the reader, but I feel almost insulted when the narration suggests I didn't know. Take for instance monsters that are left for dead and actually aren't--wow, never saw that coming! Or a girl being revealed as being pregnant after her "secret" was already referred to multiple times, including her acting weird whenever having children is mentioned. How about when a character mysteriously referring to his "hearts" instead of his "heart" turns out to--oh my gosh--actually be foreshadowing? Yeah. It's really insulting.

Nonsensical, Contrived, or Contradictory Plot Elements: The most obvious and most drastically awful problem with this book is that the magic system continues to be incoherent and continues to get worse. People cast spells that go against the rules of spellcasting, or in a couple cases contradict everything Paolini has said. (Especially one scene where Eragon saves himself from an attack without using conscious thought or magic words; he has no time to compose a spell either mentally or verbally, and so he just "rewove the fabric of the world into a pattern more pleasing to him." This is established as NOT how magic works.) He also gets a ridiculous magic sword that bursts into flames for no reason every time he says the magic word for "fire," and seems shocked that fire was produced even though he didn't try to cast a spell. Guess what? Saying "fire" in the Ancient Language WHILE THINKING IT WAS A CURSE WORD and NOT KNOWING HE EVEN HAD MAGIC was how Eragon accidentally cast his first spell in the first book. Why is it so unbelievable now? Eragon also randomly guesses--on the first try--another character's true name, by which he can control him with magic. This wasn't a person he knew really well (Arya suggests Eragon doesn't even know her well enough to guess her true name, but he figured out the true name of his cousin's fiancée's dad), and there's no precedent for this random true name discovering in the book, before or since. In fact, when Eragon's worried that Galbatorix might guess HIS true name, Arya completely dismisses it as impossible. Huh?

Eragon denies Roran's request to be made more powerful through magic because he would "lose whatever strength or speed" that Roran would gain from it. This isn't how magic works in his story either. When he cursed Elva to grow up too fast, he didn't literally lose years. When he heals people he doesn't lose his own health. Admit it, Eragon. You just want an excuse to be the most badass in the story. It seems like Paolini's magic system only makes sense in weird little pockets of logic that wouldn't actually add up to a comprehensive set of physical laws. And you know why he does this? Because he constructs his physical laws around what he wants to happen instead of having things happen that reflect the physical laws.

There is also a consistent, disturbing trend for Eragon and Saphira to threaten people, barely suppress their own violent intent, and behave like tyrants. Saphira snorts fire at someone who said she couldn't have mead (after which he changes his mind right quick, and it's written as funny), and she attacks a tree spirit when it doesn't answer her fast enough. Even worse, Eragon tortures a blind man and banishes him (then gets emo about what HE went through having to do that), ignores a man's mortally ill wife to go drinking with his buddies until he's reminded again to heal her, and seriously considers taking the dwarf council hostage if they don't vote how he wants them to. It's horrible, and yet the narration treats Eragon as though he is a gleaming hero.

A hole: Paolini writes in English. The language of the humans is never named, but we just understand that it's the common language. Its not having its own name doesn't fit in with anything established in the story, and he keeps calling it "Eragon's own tongue." C'mon Paolini. Name it. You name everything else, including swords, and you name your main characters three or four times depending on who's talking to them. I bet you named your buttcheeks. You can name the language.

Arya tracks Eragon down at one point, and when he asks how she found him, she explains that "A Rider does not walk unnoticed in this world, Eragon. Those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see can interpret the signs easily enough." She goes on for a while and it's clear he basically leaves a track in the air. I hereby dub this the Scent of Rider Farts. Which is going to bite Paolini in the ass really hard, if pretty much anyone can track him due to his being unable to walk unnoticed in the world. Perhaps his Protagonist Powers will counter this tremendous disadvantage?

I also have a problem with the magically enhanced soldiers the evil king sends at Eragon and his allies. They've been modified to not feel pain. This somehow makes them harder to kill, which makes no sense. They only die when they're hacked apart or beheaded, like zombies, but if the only reason they keep advancing when they're mortally wounded is that they don't feel or fear pain, it seems ridiculous that mortal injuries don't still make them go into shock or bleed to death. Painless soldiers actually shouldn't be harder to kill.

The aforementioned retcons mostly involved changing Eragon's known father from Morzan to Brom. In order to make Brom fit as his father, an entire chapter devoted to unpacking misconceptions and exposing lies he'd been told had to be inserted, wrapped up by a conveniently "recorded" memory Saphira had kept for Eragon in which Brom confessed to being his father. There were so many holes that had to be plugged and so many queries that ended in "Well Brom never told anyone why he did this or that" that I felt very strongly that this was an attempted twist that fell as flat as M. Night Shyamalan's movies starting with Signs. I imagine Paolini just got tired of being told he was writing Star Wars in Middle-Earth and decided to undo Luke Skywalker being Darth Vader's son.

And as a good thing about the book, I chuckled when Eragon asked if there was anything he could do to appease the dwarf clan that hates him and Orik replied, "You could die." Yes, you could, Eragon. Why don't you get on that?

I must say this was a terribly difficult book for me to read and I honestly do not think Christopher Paolini is improving as a writer. There were perhaps three places in the book that I was interested in what was going to happen, and there were MANY places where I honestly would have just put the book down and not thought of it again if I weren't trying to review it critically. It's frustrating, because Paolini has determination and imagination, but his incredibly debilitating flaws are his inability to write character and his absolutely tone-deaf prose (especially since he decorates it after the fact with gaudy adjectives resembling fake versions of the gemstones he's always shoving into his similes). If he would learn to write people as if they were something other than plot devices and learn to stop writing narration as if he is an overenthusiastic performer, he might improve. Until he does so--until he realizes he ought to--he will continue to be a lucky kid who grew up to be a below average writer . . . an artist whose art is only admired by those who don't know better.

Remember to read the long version if you liked this!

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