Thursday, March 29, 2012

Book Review: Eragon (Book 1 of Inheritance Cycle)


Eragon (2003), Christopher Paolini. Paperback, 528 pages. 

Summary: A boy finds a dragon egg in a secluded wilderness, hatches it, and sets out with a few companions on a journey to combat a tyrannical ruler, meeting elves, dwarves, and evil monsters and minions along the way. For a more detailed summary, click here.

Excerpt:
     Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
     He blinked in surprise. The message had been correct: they were here. Or was it a trap? He weighed the odds, then said icily, "Spread out; hide behind trees and bushes. Stop whoever is coming . . . or die."
     Around him shuffled twelve Urgals with short swords and round iron shields painted with black symbols. They resembled men with bowed legs and thick, brutish arms made for crushing. A pair of twisted horns grew above their small ears. The monsters hurried into the brush, grunting as they hid. Soon the rustling quieted and the forest was silent again.

STATS

Writing Quality: 3/10

Depth of Concept: 2/10

Rounded Characters: 2/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 4/10

Kept Me Thinking: 2/10
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Overall Recommendation: 3/10 


DETAILS

Writing Quality: 3/10. I've got to give Paolini props for this story . . . having written it as a 17-year old. It's not particularly better than what other 17-year-old fantasy junkies might write, with the exception that he actually reached the end of a story, which even more capable writers have a hard time doing. Having said that, I would hope that any future aspiring writer would model his work after someone with a little more maturity and ability. I hope that Paolini learns to control his info dumps as he practices his craft. I hope he learns what portions of a story to cut, even when they are "cool." I have faith in him, since he was so precocious in writing the novel. He writes better than Terry Goodkind does, but that's not saying much for either one of them.

Depth of Concept: 2/10. A lot of people criticize Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan for simply recycling elements from The Lord of the Rings, and for that reason I scored both of those writers low in this category. Paolini brings it to another level, recycling the recyclers. Note, for instance, the "Urgals" in the passage quoted above. They are modeled on the big, brutish, half-man, half-beast horned "Trollocs" in Robert Jordan's stories, which are themselves modeled on the Orcs from Lord of the Rings. And once again, we've got a young person who discovers a special ability who has an older mentor who escapes with him on a journey to fight a great evil. Now, there's nothing wrong with a hero's journey, but if you don't bring something new or insightful to the journey, all it is is a recycled rip-off. I've mentioned this before, but Paolini seems to be writing the story not because he's trying to explore anything particularly meaningful about growing up, or about taking on responsibility, but because he just wants to write some cool situations that involve dragons, sword-fighting, and magic.

Rounded Characters: 3/10. As with other sub-par fantasy writers, Paolini's characters are on the edge of an extreme emotion all of the time. There is lots of rage and anguish and even scenes where Eragon shouts "Nooooo!" Such melodrama makes characters hard to distinguish from each other . . . and it makes them less real. But the pendulum swings the other way too. When we might expect Eragon to be in a state of panic about suddenly discovering a dragon, which most people believe are extinct, he matter-of-factly begins raising it. More careless wish-fulfillment, this time pulled from his admitted idol, Bruce Coville. I love Bruce Coville, but he's writing for a much younger audience than Paolini is trying for. I'd suggest Jane Yolen's Pit Dragon trilogy for Paolini to dissect and model. And consider this bit of character description: "Merlock seemed to flourish and grow every time his wares were complimented. He wore a goatee, held himself with ease, and seemed to regard the rest of the world with slight contempt." We don't learn anything about Merlock from his behaviors, and three defining characteristics are lumped together in a single sentence. Many characterizations follow this pattern, even if bigger characters warrant a full paragraph of description.

Well-Developed World: 3/10. Paolini seems to have spent more time on his map than Terry Goodkind did in The Sword of Truth series . . . but in the sense that the "world" is derivative (with elves, dwarves, and dragons all ripped from the novels of others) of folks whose tales themselves were often derivative, this is not a strong point of the novel. Paolini's world is generic, and he provides little to consider any of his characters or lands very "original." And on a side note, as I'm looking at the map in Paolini's book, I'm realizing that maps in most fantasy book I'm aware of have a coast on the west, with characters traveling into a harsh, wilderness-type east. And always, always, elves come out of the west, usually from beyond the sea (all of these are tropes established at the start by Tolkien).

Page Turner: 4/10. Chapter after chapter, nothing in particular happens. This is mainly because Paolini seems to be in love with his own world so much that he doesn't want us to miss any of it in favor of helping the story get anywhere meaningful. He spends a lot of time with the protagonist mooning about in and around his village, taking even longer for Eragon to get going on his journey than Robert Jordan takes in The Eye of the World. And that's saying something. Everything that he can think of that is cool about fantasy, he wants to tell us about . . . whether it's chapters about learning to sword fight, or learning to do magic, or learning how to ride a dragon. Really what we've got is a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of Paolini as he wallows in all the things he'd like to be able to do. But these kinds of halts in the narrative are amateurish and boring. Even if you like any of these elements, they could be better incorporated into the story to get it moving along with a better pace. You'll never find useless chapters like these in The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter might be an argument on Paolini's side, with the really big exception that Rowling describes a series of "training" type experiences with the express purpose of subverting what we might think of their counterparts in the real world. And her descriptions are fun, and she doesn't waste a word on a description that doesn't move the story forward or at least get a smile from the reader.

Kept Me Thinking: 2/10. Nope. 
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Overall Recommendation: 3/10. Perhaps this should score higher just for anyone interested in seeing what a 17-year old is capable of producing . . . but it's not a very fun or original read, and there is much better fare out there in the genre and for the audience. It was a phenomenon when it first came out, but mostly because the great mass of fantasy readers just want more material to churn through, no matter how good or bad it is . . . and Paolini's age gave this a lot of buzz.

Books To Compare: There's not a good classical or critically-acclaimed work to compare this with, since it is so derivative and unoriginal, but it leans more to the soberness of The Lord of the Rings than the silliness of Harry Potter. If you wanted to read some of its source material, you'd look at Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, Terry Brooks' Sword of Shannara, and of course, Tolkien's classics. Not to mention Bruce Coville's Magic Shop books, which Paolini admits up front. Although it's fairly long and aspires to appeal to an older age group, Eragon is probably best suited for a Bruce Coville reading age group, who likely won't see all of its faults, and just wants to read about dragons and elves. I'm thinking 12 and younger. One reason it's hard to find comparisons is that the prominent authors who write this kind of material write adult fantasy, like Robert Jordan and Terry Brooks, but this novel is quite clearly a book for juveniles. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out Eragon on Amazon.

6 comments:

  1. This cover always catches my eye (maybe because it reminds me of a book I read once that had a chimera as a main character? Or, maybe a gargoyle?)... but I'm pretty sure I'm not gonna read it, now.

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    1. Yeah, Paolini's books certainly stand out in the bookstore. I've only read the first one, but I doubt I'll make it on to the rest in the series.

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  2. Hey, great and detailed review! I like how you include an excerpt. Please check out my book review of Eragon and feel free to follow my blog! http://cafereads.blogspot.com/2012/05/house-blend-eragon.html

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    1. Thanks Amy - going to check out your review now.

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  3. Hey, I'm fourteen and I like the book! He definitely diverts away from Lord of the Rings by the end of the series in Inheritance. Where in Tolkien's books does Frodo change into an elf, or any of the other races? I think that the Inheritance Cycle is a perfectly good series for people over twelve to read.

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    1. There are a lot of books that I read in middle school and early high school that I didn't become critical of until years later. As a vehicle to get someone reading, I've got no problems with Eragon. And granted, I haven't read the following books in the series. But, I've got to call it like I see it. And I hope you call it like you see it too! The best thing about having opinions about books is that you can share them, and then have great conversations about them. Sometimes agreeing to disagree can be more meaningful than any other outcome, and shows the valuable differences between people. So thanks for commenting!

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