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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 destroy 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 he rescues a mysteeeerious woman from a horrible dungeon while never straying from his quest to put right all that is wrong in a world oppressively ruled by an evil king.
This book got lots of attention when it first came out, partly because the author was so young. He was fifteen when he started the book, and was nineteen when it was published. Age isn't always correlated with mastery, of course, but when I read this book, I could TELL that the writer was either young or an immature writer. Though it seems people think it "got published" somehow because of its great merit, this book was actually self-published by the author's parents (company was Paolini International), and then it was paraded around on a self-funded signing tour the way most self-published people do. An established author happened to run into the family doing a signing while he was on vacation, thought a kid writing a book was interesting, bought a copy and made his stepson read it, and decided to try to get the book a deal when the kid liked it. (Don't believe me? Watch Carl Hiaasen explaining how it happened.) The people at Knopf re-edited and repackaged and re-released it under that label. I believe that if this author had been lucky enough to get an agent and the 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, in his own words, describes his story as follows: "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 readers find this book exciting, they are probably reacting to the concepts themselves (e.g., fantasy worlds, dragons, fierce battles) rather than the book's own merit, or perhaps they have 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.
My complaints regarding the writing style itself:
Every imaginable permutation of the word "said" is used. If the reader cannot tell how characters are saying something based on 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. The speech tags are not the part of the writing that is supposed to be interesting, so don't distract us; believe me when I say that if you do it, nearly any editor will consider it an early warning sign that you are an amateur.
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 other genres, 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. (I wish.)
And lastly, too many words, phrases, and concepts seem to be entirely lifted from other well-known works. Word choice read as if it the author was attempting 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 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 clichťd 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 "AlagaŽsia"? I think there is little actual consistency in the languages, though Paolini tries to explain that away by saying the land was settled by different people with different languages. (Seems to me an excuse for lack of consistency, considering on REAL maps the countries' names change depending on what country they were published in. Is the United States "Estados Unidos" on your English map? Didn't think so.) Actually, the randomness of the accents and umlauts really came off as an attempt to make the language 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 kůpa" anyway?? Yes, you have succeeded in making it all exotic. I guess that was the point? And yes, I know that these words were based upon real ancient and modern languages that some readers would NOT consider "unpronounceable," but here's the problem. Are the humans speaking English? Probably not; they've probably got some other language, but Paolini seems to have set English as the mysteriously unnamed "common" language. Which implies that everything we're reading has been reconfigured for our understanding anyway. With the sheer lack of consistency in these made-up languages, what is the purpose of deliberately choosing spellings that don't make sense to English-speaking audiences? There's no excuse for the overall inconsistency; Tolkien's languages were hard to figure out, but he was a linguist, and there WAS rhyme and reason. You have to make all kinds of new language rules up to make "AlagaŽsia" actually be pronounced the way he says it is, and it just would have been easier to spell it in a more intuitive way. It is not as if he is failing to be true to a well-thought-out phonics system if he excludes the delicious foreign-looking characters.
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, often to the point of ridiculousness (such as "when he would return, he knew not"). Elves are fair, beautiful, long-lived people with another language. Dwarves are short, stocky, bearded people who live under mountains. Dragons breathe fire. Creatures called Urgals are regarded as monsters and speak a guttural language, though there are the "elite" forms of these which 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; Eragon 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 no longer a danger (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 lady 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 authority figure? YOU BET. Although that was just my speculation upon finishing Eragon, considering there were still three books to go at that point.
As if that wasn't enough, the story contains many details that might have been included in the interest of fleshing out the world of AlagaŽsia, 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 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. Sticking these in is yet another hallmark of an amateur. Paolini would do better to avoid chattering about it what he's invented, and maybe instead do some research on pseudo-medieval settings so he doesn't make mistakes like having "poor" villagers living in what would have been rich people's conditions back then. Eragon had his own room in their "humble" house for crying out loud. Research much? I bet it had glass in the windows!
Then there is the matter of the overused characters. First, 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 written as though he's more like a grandfather, but the role he ends up filling is
close enough-- the same thing-- wait, now we're changing the story and he actually IS--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, awfully 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!"
And what about Arya, the token girl--I mean, the alluring love interest? Paolini seems quite proud of himself for having "a beautiful maiden who's more than capable of taking care of herself," but first off, does he have any idea how INSULTING that is? He's trying to make it out like this is a compliment, but if he were to say "a handsome hero who's more than capable of taking care of himself," people would go cross-eyed thinking, "Well, of course the HERO can take care of himself. He's the GUY!" But if a WOMAN can take care of herself in a story, well, now that's something different, isn't it? He seems to have no idea that he betrays a sexist attitude toward women if he suggests that this one being able to defend herself is somehow unusual. And beyond that . . . she isn't particularly independent, considering her role in the story begins when she has to be rescued by our bumbling dragon-riding hero. Arya pretty much has no personality--like everyone else in the story, actually--and exists as a plot device. At least it's kind of fun to watch her respond to Eragon as though she is offended by his attention. This, however, is the formula for falling in love with him later in the series. What's the likelihood that a man and woman portrayed as hating each other in the beginning don't end up together in the end? Paolini might end up NOT going this route, but frankly I'd be surprised if he didn't. This is archetypal, after all, and that means it has to rip off better works of literature. And in most works of literature, the guy and the girl get together. That or they turn out to be related.
And last but not least: Galbatorix. Big evil king. They haven't really mentioned much about what he's doing that's evil, though apparently he levies taxes (hmm, our government does that too--we should attack it with dragons!). People don't really seem that bad off under this guy, except that he seems to employ some real jerks as henchmen--he gives those guys jobs to run around and be scary and stuff. But . . . see, what is this guy's motivation? I bet you know. He's crazy! Everything he does is because he is insane. There is an explanation for his insanity, but it's pretty weak, and it was brought on by some very unwise choices he made in the past which also seem to have no motivation.
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 prophesies that a family member will betray him, and he doesn't think his only living cousin is capable of doing so? At this point, my immediate thought was, "He's going to somehow find out that his father changed sides and joined 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.
Okay, note on the above, added much later because of all the mail I got about it from Eragon fans. My prediction about Daddy being the "betraying" relative wasn't dead on, how about that. And lots of fans have scrambled to tell me so, attempting to mock me by saying essentially "Ha-ha, you were WRONG, the prophecy wasn't about his father, it was his BROTHER!" . . . Yeah. Does anyone else find this ironic? "Luke, I am your brother, and by the way my father did in fact betray the Dragon Riders and join the bad guys." That they're claiming I was "wrong" because instead of the classic father figure directly betraying the main character, the dad was a traitor before he was born and the direct betrayal came from a different relative? Do you people NOT see that it is still ridiculously predictable? It's still the same overdone "shock" of family betrayal that he set up as if we wouldn't see it coming. The fact that it was his brother and not his father who stabbed him in the back does not disprove my point. We have a Sauron/Saruman situation because the bad guy--Eragon's brother--is being controlled and influenced by the real big baddie. Surprise!
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 AlagaŽsia. 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 so if the wind can force them open but not pull her up too we have a physics mismatch. 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 (who can ride on her during normal conditions) 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 magic-users (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 have any reason to 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 Eragon a) never used "brisingr" as a curse word even once before that point and b) the story never shows someone doing magic under conditions of ignorance and lack of focus before or after this scene, 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. Especially since he was previously an illiterate farmboy and had no context for learning written or spoken languages, and isn't said to acquire unusual learning abilities through his new Speshul Dragonriderdom.
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 series, 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 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 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 writing an "archetypal fantasy epic" is BAD; I'm saying it needs to not be a rehashing of overused story elements that were invented, reformed, or retold from legend 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 Cycle, though I will be muddling through it at the insistence of all my fans (thank you, thank you; yes, hundreds of people have liked what I did here, and you can read my comments if you think I'm making it up). But you can read the book for yourself if you choose, or learn more about it by looking at other people's book reviews and checking out the website at www.alagaesia.com .
An added note:
I've heard silly stories about this author going to speak at school assemblies and whatnot (dressed in some sort of goofy medieval costume, so I hear), telling them all about his ideas and inspirations as if he is already a legendary master storyteller instead of a kid who likes to write and happened to get a break. Dude. He's about as good at writing fantasy as he is at actually executing the swordplay he writes about.
I posted a version of this essay as a review on Amazon.com when I first read it, and it was number a hundred-and-something, so I figured it was buried and would never be seen. Au contraire! Apparently enough people voted it "helpful" that it became the spotlight review, viewable as one of the first reviews whenever anyone looked this book up on that site. As a result I started getting mail. Weirdly, ALL of it was POSITIVE! I was expecting lots of little kids to send me e-mails that were the equivalent of "nuh-uh!" But it was mostly people who agreed with me. I saved but didn't post people who agree with me, but there have been dozens and dozens of them. Apparently a lot of people are encouraged to see that someone can explain why this book is not all that.
However, I have gotten some negatives--through the comments box on my website, through my e-mail box, and through direct comments referring to me in other people's Amazon.com reviews. If you'd like to read some interesting responses, please go back to the jump-off page and look through the comments and responses. Or just get on with reading my review of the sequel!
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