Inkdeath. By Cornelia Funke. Chicken House/Scholastic. $24.99.
Inheritance, Book III: Brisingr. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $27.50.
These are heavy tomes with weighty aspirations – the one concluding a fascinating trilogy, the other intended to conclude a trilogy that has spilled over its banks (so to speak) and will now include a fourth book.
Inkdeath is almost wholly successful in pulling together all the strands that Cornelia Funke wove in Inkheart and its sequel, Inkspell. Funke is a marvelously inventive writer, and her whole concept – real-world characters trapped within a cursed story inside a book – is a tremendously intriguing one (and which world is the real world, and how can you be sure?). The book Inkheart initially pulls Meggie and her father, Mo, into its pages; then a series of battles and sacrifices ensues, leading eventually to the death of the fire-eater Dustfinger and the rule of the evil Adderhead, whose immortality Mo has bound into…yes, a book. The characters of the troubled fairy-tale land within the Inkworld are the creations of the author Fenoglio, but the story has spun out of his control. In Inkdeath, a dark tale indeed, the Adderhead’s thugs lay waste the countryside, while the peasants turn for help to outlaws led by the Bluejay – Mo’s fictitious double, whose identity Mo himself needs to adopt in order to help. The Adderhead, now diseased and rotting since Mo bound the Book of Immortality for him in Inkspell, is desperate to have the Bluejay repair the fraying book before the White Women can take him to “the place where all stories end.” So he rounds up all the kingdom’s children and forces them into slavery in the silver mines until Mo/Bluejay surrenders. For his part, Mo has some inking of his own to do – with Death, in a last-ditch attempt to save the fairy-tale world and return himself and Meggie to the real one. “Have you forgotten that everything in this world is made of words?” asks a character at a crucial juncture. That is a clue and a continuing theme, and Funke returns to it again and again through all 684 pages of Inkdeath. “Like so much else in his book, Fenoglio had written nothing about it, and that was just why he would go north,” writes Funke about the writer Fenoglio who wrote the Inkworld whose books Funke has written. The whole writing-within-writing theme, the notion of characters outgrowing their author and acting in unwritten ways, makes Inkdeath, like its predecessor novels, odd and fascinating and convoluted and, in the end, immensely satisfying.
Brisingr, at 764 pages, is even more massive than Inkdeath, and Christopher Paolini has said that his editor cut some 200 pages from it. Brisingr still sprawls and, despite reaching again and again for profundity and meaningfulness beyond the standard heroic-fantasy mode, lapses repeatedly into long descriptive passages, predictable character interactions and quests on which readers of fantasy have gone uncounted times before (“find the weapon under the Menoa tree”). The book’s title means “fire” in an ancient language, and is the first word Eragon speaks in that tongue; the word will clearly have importance beyond the obvious one of being able to call up fire for use in battle. Brisingr is a novel of entanglements and competing loyalties – standard issue in heroic fantasy – although the interplay between Eragon and Arya is better here than in the previous novel, Eldest, in which it was just too coy. Eragon, whose name is the title of the first book in the Inheritance series, is in demand from many sides – indeed, Brisingr is subtitled, “The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular.” Eragon’s cousin, Roran, needs Eragon to rescue Roran’s beloved; the Varden need Eragon’s help; the dwarves seek him; so do the elves. There is simply not enough of Eragon to go around. Paolini’s writing remains derivative, although it is more assured in Brisingr than in Eragon or Eldest, and there are occasional flashes of what may even be self-referential humor, as when a character explains where he is looking for information on a possible tunnel that could lead into a city: “Histories; myths; legends; poems; songs; religious tracts; the writings of Riders, magicians, wanderers, madmen, obscure potentates, various generals, anyone who might have knowledge of a hidden door or a secret mechanism or something of that ilk that we might turn to our advantage.” This sounds a lot like Paolini’s own research project for his books: he pulls a little from this source, a little from that, creating a world that mirrors many earlier fantasies rather than one that he himself builds up from a unique foundation. Brisingr gets a (+++) rating: it is derivative and it rambles, although it certainly shows Paolini, who started writing Eragon when he was 15 and will be 25 in a few weeks, to be a writer clawing his way toward maturity and greater expressiveness.