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Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

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Years ago, the land of Alagesia was united under the wise guidance of the Dragon Riders, and allied with the Dwarves and the Elves. But the Riders were destroyed from within by Galbatorix, a young Rider driven to madness by the death of his Dragon. Galbatorix overthrew all the existing governments to establish an Empire, after killing just about all the Riders and their Dragons. Now the Elves and the Dwarves are in hiding, and the Dragons are extinct - so everyone thinks.

Eragon is a young farm boy whose hunting is interrupted one day when a mysterious blue stone crashes into the forest. But it isn't a stone, it's a Dragon egg, and from it hatches Saphira. Eragon has just become the first Dragon Rider in over a century, and is on the run from the ruthless minions of Galbatorix, who is determined to control this new power. Eragon is assisted in his travels by Brom, an old story teller who knows more about Dragons and magic than an old story teller should. But what will Eragon and Saphira become?

If you read fantasy, you've probably heard about this book in the past couple of years. Christopher Paolini was still a teenager when his father published it. It was then picked up by major publishing firm Knopf, and turned into an international phenomenon. Opinion is very polarised; readers either think it's wonderful epic fantasy, or a rip-off of every other epic fantasy that's ever existed. There seems to be the same divide about the recent movie. Quite a few people actually warned me not to read it, but I like to try things before condemning them, and that applies to books.

So, what do I think about Eragon? Um, yeah....

Many readers of Eragon notice astonishing similarities between its plot and that of a tale from A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And yes, the plot is incredibly derivative. Noble Princess, about to be captured by Evil Empire, sends away object which will bring down Evil Emperor. Object is found by Farmboy whose family is quickly killed by minions of Evil Emperor, and he is tutored by a Mysterious Elderly Stranger who is killed by Evil Emperor's Minions before Farmboy can complete his training. Farmboy then falls in with Ruffian with connections to Evil Emperor and together they rescue the Noble Princess from Torture Most Vile. They all go off and help the rebels defeat an attack by the Evil Emperor's army, and Farmboy destroys one of the Evil Emperor's most Wicked Minions.

Sorry for giving away the plot there, but if you've seen Star Wars, you'll be able to figure it out from pretty early on. I've read a synopsis of the sequel, Eldest, and there were no surprises. If Murtagh doesn't wind up redeeming himself sacrificing himself to save Eragon just when Galbatorix is about to kill him, I will personally eat whichever book from my library you want me to. Unless it's any of the illustrated Tolkiens, because I don't think you can get the Alan Lee illustrated Lord of the Rings anymore.

And speaking of Tolkien, yes, the Elves are powerful, immortal, noble, beautiful, graceful, and any other adjectives applied to the Elves of Middle Earth. And the Dwarves are industrious metalworkers who live under a mountain. Let's hear it for cliches!

But I can forgive derivative plots, and Tolkienesque stereotypes. I've read worse derivative plots, and Tolkien-derived Elves and Dwarves are (unfortunately) a common feature of fantasy literature. Nope, what really bugged me about Eragon was Paolini's style. There's elevated language, which is considered a hallmark of epic fantasy, and which a very few people can do well. Most who try for it fail miserably, and wind up with Purple Prose. Paolini's prose is so purple that several times I squeezed the book and was vaguely surprised not to extract any murex dye.

What do I mean by Purple Prose? For starters, characters in Eragon frequently don't say anything. They admonish. They cajole. They challenge. They snarl. They command. They request. And a thousand and one other verbs which can be used unnecessarily to denote speech. And when characters do say something, there's usually an adverb involved, just in case we aren't clear about how the dialogue should be read from what is being said, or the context. And the dialogue is often incredibly stilted. It doesn't read like speech - it reads like an overly careful construction to bring home to the reader that these are Great Heroes and World Changing Events.

Paolini loves describing his characters and his world, usually with a wealth of synonymous adjectives. Every time Arya the Noble Elf Princess makes an appearance, her beauty and grace are once more described in repetitive detail, just in case anyone is in any doubt that this is one hot chick. Characters, places and actions are described using all the best (worst) cliches of purple prose. Piercing, intelligent, inscrutable eyes are framed by flowing hair - whoops, sorry, locks or tresses. Those eyes pierce the gloom, and sometimes become orbs. Expressions and emotions cloud or shadow expressions (but how?). And characters don't have faces - they have countenances.

In all this excruciating overkill, there's certain crucial facts Paolini doesn't explain very well (but I may have missed these points while I was drowning in all the adjectives). The Urgals, the Orc equivalents, are in league with Galbatorix. Canny readers can figure this out without being told. But it's a shock to Eragon when he discovers this. So what are the Urgals, according to common knowledge, and where are they supposed to come from? And what, exactly, are Shades? Some form of undead, or demon-possessed person? Eragon seems to have some theory, so why isn't this explained? And are the Varden a particular race of human? Or is this just the name the rebels against the Empire adopted because it sounds cooler than calling themselves rebels?

There were several occasions where I had to mutter, "perhaps you need to check the meaning of that word, because I do not think it means what you think it means." For instance, Eragon "razes" a snow drift... how does one tear down a snow drift when the snow is on the ground? And in the final big donny fight, Arya shatters a large sapphire disc to distract the Shade before he skewers Eragon. The pieces of the disc descend in an "expanding torus." For those not familiar with architecture, a torus is the pretty convex moulding sometimes found at the base of a column. So how in the name of my fraying sanity can the pieces of a shattered disc become a torus?

Paolini also managed to punch one of my Really Angry buttons by mangling his weaponry. When the Dwarf King Hrothgar is introduced, he is carrying a war hammer. Fine. Within two paragraphs, he's telling Eragon about the mace his great ancestor created. Does he perchance mean his hammer, because he wasn't carrying a mace earlier?

A mace and a hammer might have a similar effect on unarmoured flesh, but they have totally different uses. Maces were particularly good at inflicting damage through mail armour. War hammers, on the other hand, came into their own when plate armour became common, because they could be used to break the armour apart. MACES AND HAMMERS ARE NOT SYNONYMOUS, PEOPLE. I didn't catch any references to "plate mail," or I would have been forced to bite something (he's got 2 more books to do it - I'll eat a magazine if he does).

Paolini has tried to construct an epic fantasy. Whatever else this is, I can't call it epic fantasy. I can't call it anything polite. Perhaps, had he waited a few years, Paolini could have produced something more memorable for the right reasons. Yes, full praise to him for finishing a book and getting it published. I think it's important to note that Knopf, Paolini's publisher, is not known as a publisher of science fiction or fantasy - a publisher that handles these genres would probably send it back with a "this does not suit our purposes" letter (and probably did). Perhaps a helpful editor would suggest that he toned down his use of adverbs and adjectives and learned to write dialogue that sounds like speech. For me, Paolini's torturous prose simply magnified the other deficiencies in the story.

But I finished it. At least the print was big. I don't think I'll bother tracking down the other two. I think I can guess how it's all going to turn out anyway.
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