I got a Kindle for Christmas, thus semi-joining this millenium… at this rate, in another 20 years or so I’ll have a smartphone. I naturally had some high-minded ideas about delving back into the classics, but what really happened was that the travel schedule and desire to read in between watching football games made me grab for the popular fiction. So, in some bits of time I had over the past two weeks, I read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle.
I didn’t hate it.
This is not to say that the books are modern classics or that Paolini is the next Tolkien (or even the next Feist). The Inheritance novels, particularly Eragon, are an adolescent writing experience made excruciatingly public. Considering that, they’re quite well-written, but as one might expect from the circumstances, they’re derivative, suffer from rather ad hoc world-building, and star a Mary Sue.
It would be unfair to criticize Paolini too loudly for any of it, in my opinion. Almost any creative teenager at one point or another has imagined himself as Jedi ninja Cool G. Beans, Duke of Radsylvania, accompanied by his trusty sidekick Sir Suspiciously-similar-to-your-best-friend on a mission to save Princess That-girl-from-math-class from the evil Lord Obviously-your-gym-coach, adjusting as needed for your gender, orientation, desire to bone your best friend, and whatever horrible slang was used to identify coolness during your adolescence. Paolini happens to be the lucky guy who leveraged that into a reasonably popular novel.
Paolini also seemed to understand the criticism and take at least some of it to heart, although his response mostly took the form of obvious flailing in the second book. In the first novel Eragon can do almost no wrong, going from a simple farmboy to a world-class swordsman and magician within the space of a few months. In Eldest, Paolini does all he can to tear Eragon down, repainting him as foolish, arrogant, and weak, not to mention giving him a pimple in the form of his accidental cursing of Elva. This incident hinges strangely on a point of grammar, makes the rules of magic less clear rather than more so, and generates a powerful character Paolini never really figures out how to use. Like this, the whole effort turns out poorly. Eragon’s disability is temporary, his huge mistake with Elva turns out to be accidentally beneficial, and his most serious weaknesses are magically erased (I mean this literally). Above all, it is very boring because we are already past the point where we as readers really believe Eragon will fail, or even get derailed temporarily in an interesting way.
Yet, Paolini does manage to tell an interesting story in this book, continuing on into the remainder of the series. It is not Eragon’s story, but his cousin Roran’s, that is worth reading. Roran has no magical powers, no capacity for wielding a sword, and nothing to rely on besides his strength, creativity, and charisma. He uses these talents to defeat a group of soldiers, lead an entire village across the world, and rise to high command and great success in the rebel army. Of course this is quite conventional — Roran is motivated by a desire to rescue, then protect, his personal princess — but well-told nonetheless. Having accidentally created a class of essentially unbeatable superhumans in the world-building for Eragon, Paolini ably uses Roran’s story to show how the world can work despite their existence.
Unfortunately, as the cycle winds to a close, Roran has to step back because the actual business at hand is Eragon’s conflict against the unstoppable Dark Lord Galbatorix. The problem is that Galbatorix has been overbuilt: vastly outnumbered, he nonetheless defeated the ancient order of Dragon Riders, spent the next century growing stronger, absorbing all that they knew, and ultimately succeeded in finding a way to control all magic in the world. Thus, he must be defeated by a technicality; despite his insuperable knowledge and power, he is unaware that you can cast spells without saying anything.
Arguably, The Lord of the Rings similarly hinges on a technicality. However, the idea has a kind of logic. Since Sauron put all his power into the ring, destroying the ring will destroy him. Moreover, the technicality is introduced very early on, at a point when we’re still just accepting what we’re told about the world rather than trying to piece things together for ourselves, and it motivates the whole quest that the trilogy relates. Paolini, on the other hand, lays out his (poorly conceived) system of magic in excruciating detail, the relevant technicality doesn’t flow naturally from that system, and it’s buried somewhere in the second book and forgotten until it’s needed for the finale.
All of this could have been overcome. Paolini is a reasonably talented writer, and given some time and some life experience — which might have, for instance, prevented him from exoticizing nearly all the major female characters — the Inheritance cycle could have turned out much better. Unfortunately, Eragon was published before he had enough time to reconsider it, and at that point he was locked into a world that had a bit too much of Tolkien and McCaffrey (the bonding and mental-link stuff is practically straight out of the Dragonriders of Pern novels), and a story that had a bit too much of George Lucas. All the same, the novels are fun to read, and the errors, though numerous, are tolerable and occasionally instructive.