I mentioned recently that I had finished reading the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, and that I was trying to think of how to review them. For one thing, the books have been out for years – and it’s even a re-reading for me. For another thing, it’s a four-book series, and I’m done with all of them. So while it’s tempting to do one gigantic review, I don’t think that’s a good idea…
I think that conceptually this series has a lot going for it. It is very much so an author trying to bring a lot of modern understanding into the fantasy genre, trying to bring complex modern thoughts and knowledge both into that realm. Much of fantasy tries to recreate that medieval mindset, but Paolini eschews that.
There’s also the structural conventions of the genre – and of the hero’s journey – that Paolini both incorporates and actively works against. The most obvious is that, while the trilogy is the most common series length, Paolini takes what feels like it is starting out as a trilogy and turns it into a very compelling 4-book series.
So instead of book reviews, I think I’ll write up some musings on each of the books. I’ll think of them a bit in relation to each other, and in these larger terms. But also of course some consideration for the details of the book itself. So first up: Eragon!
The Hero’s Journey
So first up, yep, this book starts us on a hero’s journey, a chosen one who was before totally unconnected to the world he is about to find himself in. Living in a small, out-of-the-way rural village. Actually, scratch that – on a farm, outside the village. Way out of the way. Despite being located near “nowhere” on the map, Eragon the farm boy finds himself soon to be Eragon the dragonrider.
In many ways, it’s hard not to fall back on conventions like this. By having a character this ignorant of the world, the political struggles in it, the magic and races dangers, you have a whole lot of room for storytelling, world-building, and exposition.
There’s a bit of exposition one-upmanship, however, because dragons and their riders can speak telepathically with no one else hearing – thus allowing the main character and his bonded companion, the dragon Saphira, to talk through whatever is going on in the scene. It was a new way of approaching a normal sort of storytelling.
Eragon learns quite a bit throughout the book, but really just enough to be thrust into situations where he is in well over his head. He is saved on numerous occasions by the people around him, which matches with the general reality that heroes need friends, allies, and quite a bit of luck to survive and to be heroes.
There are quite a few normal sorts of elements, as well, especially a set of prophecies that Eragon receives. I do love a good prophecy, and there is a great deal of import given to these prophecies throughout all four books, which just makes them better as far as I’m concerned.
How Much of This Did He Plan?
Alright, I may have been spoiler (or at least detail) light so far, but that may change a bit here. That’s because, there are several items which you learn in later books which drastically change a re-reading of Eragon! That was my number one takeaway from this book, that it had a whole lot more meaning and significance a second time through.
To be that important, it could really only be one thing, and that’s identities. To be fair, there’s a lot of people met in Eragon, and we learn more about most of them throughout the series, all of which improves our perspective on them. But there are a couple of characters that take the book from interesting to heartbreaking. The amount of innocence contained in Eragon – that is progressively lost as the books drag deeper down until you’re in full-on war at the end – is astounding. I also didn’t remember how late it is that you actually get the most important spoiler!
I’ll avoid actually saying what it is here, although now even just saying something I’ll have new readers trying to guess things they might not have otherwise, and returning readers perhaps trying to remember (like I was) what details they were needing to piece things together at the start. Feel free to message me (@compgeeksdavid) if you’d like the full spoilers!
Much Room for Growth
Kind of like in my discussion about The Gunslinger recently, Eragon is a first book that clearly left the author feeling the need to infuse more into his story, and into his storytelling. It hits on a lot of the traditional elements. I imagine it felt safe for, say, the folks who decided to make a movie of it (I haven’t seen the movie, only a few brief moments on TV before turning away). It seems kind of ordinary.
I think the later books are where things definitely get interesting, in a lot of respects! Throughout the series, Eragon kind of remains a chosen one savior of the world character, on an over-arching quest, but he’s not the only person in the world. He may not even be the best hero they have, as that distinction might need to go to Arya. But he’s the Chosen One, which carries on additional weight in terms of politics, motivation, and war. You can’t afford to lose him. His freedom of choice is limited.
The larger political landscape that Paolini builds does a lot to frame the hero in a larger context. You really only just start to get a taste of this in this book, in its final region, the final climactic battle and fairly abrupt ending – but really, things fall apart from there!
But that’s to be continued when I muse about Eldest!