For Fantasy Fans, the Dragons Fly Again
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Or the Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular
By Christopher Paolini
Knopf. 763 pp. $27.50
I've got a secret. When I was 13, I was fixated on the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. I usually sat in the Dungeon Master's chair, unleashing rich characters and exciting situations that seemed, to my friends at least, to have been created out of thin air. Truth is, I just read more fantasy than they did -- often all through the night -- and could steal freely from books they hadn't read.
So I feel a certain kinship with Christopher Paolini, whose first novel, "Eragon," about a 15-year-old boy who discovers a dragon egg, may have had a similar genesis. While young readers devoured the novel, some adult readers cried foul. The teenage author, they argued, had stolen from fantasy greats like J.R.R. Tolkien and Anne McCaffrey, and even borrowed from "Star Wars." Worse, much of the book was awkwardly overwritten.
Despite the complaints, Paolini's books -- "Eldest" followed "Eragon" in 2005 -- have sold something like 15 million copies. That number has increased by more than half a million just this week with the release of "Brisingr," the third novel of a promised four in his Inheritance cycle.
"Brisingr" opens with Eragon -- accompanied by his dragon, Saphira, and his cousin Roran -- hunting the foul Ra'zac and giant Lethrblaka monsters in their underground lair. Partially a mission to rescue Katrina, Roran's betrothed, and partially a quest to revenge the murder of Eragon's uncle, the subterranean death match is rendered in clipped, muscular language: "A huge, twisted shape hurtled out of the lancet passageway. Eyes black, bulging, rimless. A beak seven feet long. Batlike wings. The torso naked, hairless, rippling with muscle. Claws like iron spikes." If that's not enough, the thing stinks, too. And it is not alone.
But this opening brawl is just a bit of unfinished business from the previous book, a way to sink the claws back into readers. The Ra'zac and Lethrblaka are agents of the true enemy, King Galbatorix, the rogue Dragon Rider turned sorcerer tyrant. It's the ongoing war against him -- almost always fought against his surrogates -- that occupies Eragon and Saphira.
If the focus had stayed there, Paolini could have finished his tale already. Instead, he throws in a daunting variety of players, races and locales. Nasuada, leader of the Varden, struggles to hold together her multiracial/multi-species army of rebels by any means necessary, including an alliance with her age-old enemies, the Urgals. Roran, reunited with Katrina, tries to earn his stripes among the Varden through battle. Murtagh, Eragon's half brother, and his dragon, Thorn, have become enslaved agents of Galbatorix and grow stronger -- and more conflicted -- by the day. The dwarf, Orik, navigates the contentious world of his people's politics as he seeks the throne. Queen Islanzadí leads her elves to war for the first time in a hundred years. The elf Oromis and his ancient dragon, Glaedr, decide it is time to emerge from hiding. You can't say that Paolini doesn't put a lot on the table.
Perhaps too much. Paolini may have streamlined his prose line by line and cut the Elvish poetry out, but this is by no means a sleek story, dragging as it does for long sections in the middle. And yet in some of the quiet moments on the sidelines, Paolini demonstrates his growing maturity.
For example, after listening to the elf princess Arya describe her lover's death, "Eragon placed his right hand over her left. . . . Arya permitted the contact between them to endure for almost a minute. . . . Then, with a slight lift of her arm, Arya let him know the moment had passed, and without complaint he withdrew his hand." That's much more understated than similar exchanges in earlier books. For young readers hungry for the action, though, this may be nothing short of boring.
Fortunately, toward the end, Paolini reconnects with the core elements that animate Eragon's tale: mystery and danger. Just what is the Eldunarí, the source of Galbatorix's immense power? Can Eragon's familial heritage get any more convoluted? Will Eragon ever get a new sword to replace Zar'roc? What will the Siege of Feinster look like: the underground Battle of Farthen Dûr from "Eragon" or the smoke-choked Battle of Burning Plains from "Eldest"? Will any of the major characters die? If these questions don't get your blood pumping . . . well, this may not be the series for you.
And what about Paolini's thefts from the fantasy masters? He actually handles them admirably well in this third book. He claims squatter's rights to grumpy dwarves and aloof elves and orphaned farm boys who will be kings. Perhaps the passing years have made Paolini feel complete ownership of these characters, just as the passing pages slowly dull a reader's skepticism. But newer characters such as the horribly prophetic Elva and the flirtatious dwarf woman Iorunn are very much his own creations. Older characters Nasuada of the Varden and even Saphira herself develop inner lives that add depth.
As an adult, I read "Brisingr" with a mixture of admiration for Paolini's accomplishments and an awareness of the book's flaws, which prevented me from being fully won over. But that's hardly a slight. Had I read this novel when I was 13, it would have kept me up straight through the night. For that matter, I might have even stolen a few bits from it for D&D. And that's a compliment.