December 24, 2009


Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $24.99.

Brisingr Deluxe Edition. By Christopher Paolini. Knopf. $29.99.

     It says something about the Eragon phenomenon that a splendidly made, elegantly designed gift book based on Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance cycle is in many ways more interesting than the thick novels of the cycle itself. Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia is beautiful to look at and surprisingly comprehensive in explaining Paolini’s created (but very strongly Tolkien-derived) world and the races that inhabit it. The excellent illustrations, lovely maps and gorgeous art combine to give a greater feel of reality to Alagaësia than do the books themselves. Yes, the name of the land still sounds disconcertingly like “analgesia.” Yes, there are Beor Mountains (think of Tolkien’s shapeshifter Beorn), Palancar Forest (think of Tolkien’s “seeing stone,” a Palantír), Tronjheim (Trondheim in Norway has a very Tolkienian sound), Vol Turin (consider Tolkien’s Minas Tirith), and many other echoes of the great fantasist – plus echoes of other works as well. But in Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia, the echoes are fainter than in the narrative and invented languages of Paolini’s novels, where they come through so strongly as to interfere at times with those elements of the story that really have originality. In this beautiful gift book, the eye is so delighted and distracted by the bound-in mini-books, the elegant colorings, the size comparisons and histories of the four two-legged races, the tales of dragon riders, and the well-summarized snippets of history that the derivative nature of Paolini’s work becomes almost irrelevant. Eragon’s Guide to Alagaësia can serve as an introduction to the Inheritance series, but it works even better as a supplement – a particularly wonderful gift for existing fans.

     Another possible gift, albeit a somewhat frustrating one, is the new deluxe edition of the cycle’s third book, Brisingr. This is the same tale of divided loyalties, desperate battles and an unending fight against tyranny told when Brisingr was originally published in September 2008. The deluxe edition dresses up the story with previously unseen art, a couple of deleted scenes in an appendix, some dwarf runes, and fine-grade paper with high-quality printing. But it remains the 750-plus-page book from which Paolini has said his editor cut 200 pages; it still rambles and could easily have been further tightened, although fans will surely welcome the way Paolini spins out so many things at so much length. Brisingr is subtitled, “The Seven Promises of Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Bjartskular,” and indeed, promises prove conflicting and hard to keep here. 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. Nevertheless, despite some scenes of genuine excitement, Paolini’s writing remains uninspired and often plodding – although it is more assured in Brisingr than in the earlier Inheritance books, Eragon and Eldest. Still, Brisingr remains in many ways unoriginal; it gets a (+++) rating. And for whom is the deluxe edition intended? Fans will already have the earlier hardcover; non-fans will not want to enter the Inheritance cycle with the third of its four books; and the additions that make this edition “deluxe” are not really sufficient to justify buying the book if you already have it in good shape. A gift item, to be sure; but for whom? Let the buyer think carefully….

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