This started out as a straight-forward book review, but I think it’s now turning into more of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” deal. I wrote a review. Then I thought about a completely different angle. And thought I’d include both! So, choose which version you want to read, or read both! Either way, you’ll hear my mouthy opinion, for better or for worse.
Eragon (book #1 of the four-part Inheritance Cycle) is a good old-fashioned epic fantasy quest, filled with dragons, monsters, good guys and bad guys, swords with names, wise old mentors, and one very special young man who spends the book discovering that he may in fact be the Chosen One.
I’ve always enjoyed reading with my son, and now that he’s 12, our reading time has changed. We still hang out and read together, but we’re often looking for books that we can read in parallel, then chat about for a while. Eragon is LONG book, well over 500 pages in our paperback copy, and I’d say it took us close to five months to get through the whole thing. Because I wanted this to be a shared experience, I did not read ahead — and when we had days or even weeks when my kiddo was distracted or just not into it, we both went without.
Consequently, I think, my enjoyment of the story was already a bit lower than it might have been if I’d just read straight through. More on this later.
In terms of plot, Eragon more or less follows along well-trodden paths. We start with 15-year-old Eragon as an ordinary boy, being raised by his uncle on a simple farm. When Eragon finds a dragon egg, it sets in motion a series of life-changing events, some tragic, some full of promise.
When the egg finally hatches, out comes a cute baby dragon with whom Eragon immediately bonds. The two share a psychic link, and Eragon discovers that her name is Saphira, and that they can have full conversations in their heads. But there are dangerous foes who want the dragon too, and when Eragon’s uncle is brutally murdered, Eragon and Saphira flee for their lives, along with the town storyteller, an old man named Brom who has plenty of secrets and wisdom to share with Eragon.
There’s a road trip of sorts, as Ergaon, Saphira and Brom chase the bad guys who killed the uncle. More than that, though, Brom starts to teach Eragon about his true heritage and calling: Eragon is a Dragon Rider, one of an ancient line with magical powers, thought to be more or less extinct. The evil king Galbatorix would surely kill him if he could, and they spend much of the book moving from place to place, pursued by nasty creatures, always in danger, and busy making sure that Eragon is transformed from simple farm boy to magic-wielding powerhouse.
So. What did I think? Well, for starters, this is a tough book to read in small chunks. Eragon is highly detailed, and the telling of the backstory and mythology is uneven and occasionally awkward. Brom tells Eragon about the Riders and how the king became so evil in a single story, about three pages long, early on in the book — and yet this informs almost everything that comes later. Should a reader really be expected to keep all the details straight hundreds of pages later? It seems a bit daunting, especially considering that this is supposedly a kids’ book.
Reading it as I did, no more than a chapter at a time, sometimes with days in between, it was hard to maintain the flow of the story. But even so, I do think I might have felt similarly if I’d read it straight through. The chapters are long, and the entire plot is one episode of danger after another, often with very little natural flow between scenes or locations.
Much has been made of the fact that the author, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 when he wrote this book, which is utterly remarkable in terms of a teen literary phenomenon. It’s pretty mind-boggling to me that someone his age could create such a large, densely packed book. But should a book be judged by the age of its author, or on the merit of its content, plot, characters, and overall effect?
If I ignore what I know about the author, I’m less impressed. Much of the story feels derivative. Young apprentice, old mentor? Check. Newly discovered magical powers? Check. Coming of age due to the death of the hero’s family/support system? Check. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Brom could be any one of a dozen or more wise, old, mysterious magical gurus from fantasy — Gandalf, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan Kenobi. There’s a magical elf girl, because of course there’s a magical elf-girl. Cities full of suspicious or untrustworthy residents. Dwarves, elves, mad kings… it’s like every fantasy epic, put into a blender and poured out into a new glass.
And then there’s the writing. Remember being in high school English classes, writing essays, and trying to use as many SAT-level words as possible in the attempt to impress your teacher with the power of your vocabulary, even if you had nothing much to say? Yeah. It’s like that. I stopped noticing quite so much after a while, but particularly early on, it’s irritating and distracting to be subjected to such overblown language constantly. The author’s approach seems to be: why use a one-syllable word when there’s a longer one that will do?
So did I enjoy Eragon? Yes and no. I enjoyed the experience of sharing it with my son, being able to talk about it with him, and seeing his less-jaded response to the plot and characters. He really liked it, which made me like it too. Left to my own devices, I’d probably say that it was at least a third longer than it needed to be, in dire need of editing, and overall a not terribly original remash of standard fantasy themes and plot elements.
I mentioned Obi-Wan Kenobi before, right? On further thought, a cup of tea and a shower later, I’ve started to think that the entire book of Eragon (and who knows, perhaps the rest of the Inheritance series as well) can be boiled down to “Star Wars with Dragons”.
We’ve got the story of a young man raised on a farm by his uncle. Parentage unknown. He unwittingly comes into possession of something sought after by the Empire. Agents of the Empire slaughter his uncle and destroy the farm. He has to flee. He receives a vision of a beautiful young woman who desperately needs his help. He is guided by an old man with mysterious knowledge and powers, who tells him that he himself has abilities he was unaware of, and that he belongs to a group with special abilities and — can we call magic “the force”? He begins to learn to use his powers and becomes a skilled flyer and fighter. His mentor ultimately dies, after setting the hero on his path. The hero allies himself with a rogue with a heart of gold, whose skills help him avoid capture…
Okay, it gets a bit murkier after that, since there’s no Death Star. But there is an epic battle at the end, and our hero emerges triumphantly, but with the knowledge that he needs further training in order to prepare for the challenges still to come. Which nicely sets us up for the next installment in the series.
So does this mean that Eragon’s father is really the evil king Galbatorix? It would fit. After all, Galbatorix was originally a Rider, before going mad from grief and pursuing total domination and dark powers.
Wow. Mind blown.
But do me a favor! If you’ve read the rest of the Inheritance series, don’t tell me if my Galbatorix theories are correct! I need to leave some mysteries to look forward to.
Wrapping it all up:
I tried to get my kiddo to contribute to this review, but apart from saying “it was good”, he wasn’t willing to play along. He does like my Star Wars theories! The kiddo, for all his middle-school cool, was actually pretty enthusiastic about the story, except for when it bogged down in chapters full of traveling from point A to point B to point C. He enjoyed it enough that he insisted that we start the second book, Eldest, right away… and so we have.
Sigh. We’re one chapter into Eldest so far, and I can tell we’re in for a long haul. 600+ pages! I don’t love this series so far, as you can probably tell, but it also hasn’t turned me off completely, and at this point, thanks to the kiddo, I’m involved enough to keep going. I’ve just got to see how it all works out!
And hey, who knows? Maybe there’ll be some Ewoks along the way.
Title: Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle, book #1)
Author: Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication date: 2002
Length: 528 pages
Genre: Fantasy (kids/teens)