Monday, January 22, 2007

Eldest, by Christopher Paolini

This is the sequel to Eragon, the second of a projected "Inheritance Trilogy." In this book, Eragon deals with the aftermath of the climactic battle that ended the first book; goes off to finish his training; and fights another climactic battle to end this novel.

As a sequel, it suffers from "sequel-itis," and/or "sophmore slump." Or, possibly, a much tighter production schedule, as it feels like a much more derivative work. Sure, I don't expect total originality from a swords-and-sorcerors tale, but this is a bit too flabby. Eragon leaves as the rebel forces are reorganizing, and flies off to Dagobah to be trained by Yoda. The training itself mixes yoga, meditation, and sun salutes with Karate Kid martial arts. Once he completes his training, he has Matrix like abilities to dodge arrows and stop time. The influences were, oh, rather OBVIOUS!

The entire training sequence takes place in this idyllic forest setting, and since so much of it is rather Zen-like, those sections lose any sense of tension or momentum. They are pleasant, but there is little sense that time is of the essence. Which is unfortunate, because the set up is that the rebels are going to attack before the Empire expects them to. So, while Eragon is "finding his center" and composing epic poetry (really!), there are theoretically feverish preparations for battle.

To give the kid his due, however, Paolini tries something new in this book, and braids together three stories: Eragon and his training; the rebels (the Varden) and their peparations; and the exodus of the people of Eragon's village. The Empire is seeking Eragon's cousin Roren, to use as a bargaining tool to bring Eragon into the king's power. When the assassins fail to capture Roren, they take his fiancee, and suddenly Roren is off on his own quest.

These sections work the best of the book, in my opinion, because once again we see someone who is merely ordinary, become extraordinary by virtue of the circumstances. Once Roren loses his love, he know he has no choice but to search for her. He becomes the leader of the village, largely because he has no other options. Paolini crafts a compelling character arc for Roren--once he realizes that he has no other choices, he stops debating or vascillating. The men of the village are discussing what to do about the siege of their town. There are many positions and many contingencies. After hours of debate with no conclusion, Roren is tired. He stands up, and says "I'm leaving tomorrow. Anyone who wants to may come with me." And then he leaves. No surprise, the whole town ends up coming too.

Roren's story is, perhaps, the most moving because he is an ordinary human. Eragon has a dragon, which gives him magic powers, and he's apparently a prodigy too. The Varden have their own magical sources--magicians and dwarves, who are not limited as humans are.

Roren doesn't have anything but himself, and his development into a leader is the most exciting part of the book, because it's actual character development. If Paolini allows himself to pull free of the lure of the invented languages, he could be an amazing author to watch.

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