Thursday, January 18, 2007

Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

I read these books because my children insisted that I had to. We saw the movie Eragon twice, and I couldn't read these books because I couldn't get them out of the kidlets' hands! So, I got Eragon as an audio book.

I started out with the plot line of the story from the movie, which is not so much a reading experience as a visual-aural one. Names, places, mythic figures--were pronounced and were unexceptional. Taking on Eragon as an audiobook, I was spared the eccentric spellings and pseudo-Scandinavian languages that litter the landscape of this series. Which I think made this series easier for me to accept, because I was not constantly battling with the annoying typography of this story.

Does anyone remember the great Ice Cream Renaissance of the late 1980s? That was the era when the world brought forth Haagen-Dasz and Frusjen Gladje--words that are sprinkled with unnecessary umlauts and punctuation that this font won't duplicate. Apparently, neither of those names are actually words--they are just made up. So too are the names of people and places and things in Paolini's books.

But, if you just listen to the book, as I did, you can simplify the task of pronounciation by simply doing it phonetically. No umlauts, no extraneous apostrophes scattered between consonants--it's much the easiest way to get into the books.

And they are really much better than I had expected. Sure, it helps to have professionals reading anybody's prose, but for being a teenager, Paolini's writing is smooth and polished. Unlike, say, Dan Brown's, which is so bad that it almost makes the Da Vinci Code unreadable. Paolini isn't striving for poetic effect, for "exceptional" writing. His sentences are like river rocks, rubbed smooth and thus they do not interrupt the flow of the story. This is not a small thing: there is a fatal tendency in much fantasy writing to invert verbs and nouns in an attempt to sound "medieval." Sword and sorcery heroes have a distressing tendency to say "I know not," or "Thou shalt be." Paolini avoids this--mostly.

Which is good, because he has written a ripping good yarn. Eragon is a classic quest novel, but one in which the adventure is varied and the moral teaching are not over-emphasized. Eragon lives a quiet life in a small farming village in a mountain valley, when he finds a large blue stone in the woods. He brings it home, thinking he could sell it--and it turns out to be a dragon's egg, which hatches.

So, Eragon is faced with the job of raising an animal he has to hide from his family. There is an element of many horse stories, and even of Charlotte's Web in his first relationship with the dragon. The dragon grows--quickly--and suddenly, Eragon is on the run for his life and the dragon's. He acquires a mentor, and they have a series of "road" adventures--seeing a large city for the first time, travelling across a desert, through mountain tunnels, basic survival and travelogue adventures. Simultaneously, he is learning about dragons--his relationship with his dragon develops in a way that other novels develop characters who are going to fall in love. They don't understand each other, but they are connected, and they show each other their strengths and weaknesses.

There are also battles--soldiers and trolls (called "Urgals" here) and scary nightmarish creatures as well. There is armor and sword fighting and clever escapes from pursuit.

But Paolini adds some detective story elements as well. Eragon is searching for the creatures who killed his uncle, but he doesn't just use tracking skills to find them--when he finds a vial they dropped, they go to track shipping records to determine where the item came from and how it got to where they found it.

I think that's what impressed me most about this book was the variety of things Paolini attempted. Eragon's journey criss-crosses his imagined continent, yet he is very careful to accurately portray the different stages of the seasons--both over time, and across ecosystems. He adds lightness to the story, with some clever characters who refuse to speak or act portentiously, even when predicting his future.

There is a degree to which Paolini has clearly read maybe a leetle too much Tolkein, there are four different languages, and he tries to develop the economic/religious/cultural foundations for all the various creatures he's created--the kind of obsessive geekiness that leads people to learning Klingon, for example. But on the whole, he pushes these elements to the backstory, letting the story itself take the lead.

Eragon is the first book in a projected trilogy, and the series is set up around a mano-a-mano battle between Eragon and the evil king Galbatorix. Part of the evil king's power comes from a wicked magic-worker called a shade. In the movie, we have numerous scenes where the king commands the Shade to do stuff for him, and the Shade tries and Eragon escapes and then there is yelling. And threats. Played by John Malkovich, Galbatorix is not just evil, but he's a scenery chewer too. He has an iron grip on the country, and is awesomely powerful, but seems to spend all his time alone in a dark room wearing his crown. The only person ever in his presence is this Shade.

Paolini plays a more subtle game, and I was pleasantly surprised. While much is done in the name of Galbatorix, the man himself stays off-stage for the entire book. The Shade also is scarcely present--he appears in the prologue, and in the final battle at the end of the book. The movie shows the Shade as a one-man handyman for Galbatorix. Someone has stolen his dragon egg, so Galbatorix tells the Shade to get it back. The Shade sends this group of bad guys after it, and then a different group of bad guys, then goes back to wherever and tortures an elf to get more information so he can send another group of incompetants. The threat builds up more credibly in the book, where the really bad stuff is only hinted at, and not seen.

The movie, as I review it after having finished the book--really flattened out the level of adventure. Eragon, the book, makes a point of how distance and time have to be managed at the level of technology available, and the entire book covers the better part of a year. The movie leaves the distinct impression that everything happened in about two weeks.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Eragon, enough to pick up the even longer sequel Eldest.

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