October 06, 2005


Eldest: Inheritance, Book Two.  By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $21.

     Christopher Paolini burst onto the publishing scene two years ago with a well-orchestrated publicity campaign focusing on the fact that he started writing his first novel, Eragon, at the age of 15.  The question for readers of Eragon was whether their enjoyment would focus on the author’s precocity or on the story itself.  The book was a considerable achievement for a young writer, but not a considerable novel in its own right.  Highly derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne McCaffrey and other fantasy novelists – and of George Lucas’ original Star Wars films of the late 1970s and early 1980s – Eragon told of a young man, the eponymous hero, who might be the sole heir to the vanished Dragon Riders, heroes who were betrayed by one of their own and then destroyed.  The betrayer of the Jedi…err, Dragon Riders then assumed the mantle of kingship and began systematically terrorizing everyone and everything.

     This is a very formulaic plot; and despite some deft touches, perhaps born of naiveté, Eragon never rose much above ordinariness in its nearly 550 pages.  And so we come to Eldest, longer by more than 100 pages and denoted as the second book of the Inheritance trilogy, written by an author now in his early 20s.  Yet Eldest remains as derivative as its predecessor.

     To be fair, virtually all modern Western fantasy has its roots in Tolkien, and much is rooted in McCaffrey as well.  The few fantasists who have gone entirely in their own directions – Philip Pullman and Terry Pratchett come immediately to mind – have vision, scope and style far beyond those of other writers.  It is unfair to expect Paolini to operate anywhere near this level.  Nevertheless, Eldest remains so resolutely derivative that it will likely appeal only to preteen and early-teen readers, or ones for whom any flight of fancy will do.  Take the odd admixture of place names, for example: Ellesméra, Nädindel and the Beor Mountains, right out of Middle-Earth, are mixed with Bullridge and The Spine.  And then there is Alagaёsia, which sounds a bit too much like analgesia.  The writing is of this sort: “She understood her maid’s reluctance; she too felt uncomfortable whenever she had to interact with magic users….It scared her to consider magicians’ and sorcerers’ powers.  The thought that a seemingly ordinary person could kill with a word; invade your mind if he or she wishes; cheat, lie and steal without being caught; and otherwise defy society with near impunity…”  Fantasy readers have experienced all this before.

     Despite all this, there is a certain amount of real power in Paolini’s imagination, perhaps not yet fully formed but clearly there.  The plot here has Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, travel to the land of elves for training in magic and sword fighting, followed everywhere by uncertainty and out-and-out treachery…while an additional threat arises at Eragon’s home of Carvahall, where his cousin, Roran, must face it.  There are enough threads, characters and events of interest in Eldest to keep the book moving – though it is, in truth, longer than it needs to be.  Paolini seems still to be absorbing the plot and style details of the fantasy tales he has read for years; he has not yet made fantasy writing truly his own.  But he has the skill to do so.  The final book of the Inheritance trilogy, when it comes, is likely to be the strongest, and Paolini’s later writing is likely to be stronger still.

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