Eldest is the second installment in what author Christopher Paolini calls the Inheritance trilogy (the first being Eragon and the last, the to-be-released Empire). I was eager to read it having not long finished Eragon and I was not disappointed. Paolini started writing the trilogy when he was 15, spending a year writing, a year re-writing and then a third year re-drafting and re-writing again. His parents, who ran a small publishing company, literally bet the farm helping their son release Eragon and were close to needing to find other employment when the rights were bought by a large publishing house. As for Paolini, he travelled the length and breadth of the US promoting his book, giving talks at bookshops dressed as a medieval storyteller. I tell you this to give you some insight into the man behind the book. He started writing the books because he was unhappy with the quality and sort of fantasy available to read and he liked fantasy so much he decided to create his own fantasy universe where he could spend his time (apparently he has a real viking sword that he bought from the money he made on Eragon and rarely takes it off around the house). I’m glad he took the plunge because I like spending time in his universe.
Eldest is no masterpiece, but while it certainly stays in familiar territory (some have labelled it derivative), it does enough out of the ordinary to make it far from bland and boring. For me, it makes use of the stereotypes to save time rather than reduce plot or character. I’m particularly fond of his use of dragons, a race typically drawn as wild, dangerous and fearsome beasts and nothing more. The other races, the mainstay of fantasy, do seem very well based on Tolkein’s description in the LOTRs, but that accusation could be levelled at 80% of fantasy written since the 50s. Paolini does say he likes to read Tolkein and the fact that he delves into Norse mythology and has created a detailed map and separate languages and histories (even a religion for one) for the races that inhabit Alagaësia, the name of the land in the book, shows how much he enjoyed the thought Tolkein put into his novels.
The story of Eldest, unlike the earlier Eragon, focuses on three main characters. Primarily it follows the trilogy’s hero, Eragon, as he travels to the realm of the elves to complete his training as a Dragon Rider, a legendary race of heroes who policed the realm before one of their number, Galbatorix, led an uprising and killed them and all but a few of their dragon steeds. Another arm of the story follows Eragon’s cousin, Roran. They grew up together in a small town in the hills, but where Eragon went off in search of revenge after his uncle’s murder, by people who were searching for his dragon, Roran was left behind. Now the king has sent men to capture him to use as leverage against Eragon. In order to save the village and free his beloved Katrina, Roran leads them on an epic journey to Surda, a kingdom that stands against the cruel king. The other character, although taking a much smaller role, is Nasuada, ruler of the Varden, a group who avidly oppose the king’s rule and have fought him for many years.
I have to admit that the time Eragon spends training and Roran travelling seems to drag on after awhile, in the same way the constant walking in Fellowship of the Ring does (all I could think through FOTR was: ‘hurry up and get somewhere’). It’s not uninteresting, and this is the sort of thing that books do well and movies have to ignore; backstory and dense, slow, realistic character development. It’s a stark contrast to Eragon where it’s a non-stop chase with the heroes always just one step from certain death. Here a lot of time is spent exploring the character’s inner thoughts, feelings and motivations as well as plotting steady growth and change in their personalities. This will appeal to some people and not to others. It does show how much the author has thought about how everything works in his world and where everyone fits in the overall picture.
One thing that struck me is that, unlike many novels, the hero is not drawn as this fully-formed, invincible warrior who, despite overwhelming odds, performs a miracle of skill to win out the day. Eragon makes lots of mistakes, as does Roran, and things go bad as often as good for the both of them. It looked a losing battle for Eragon when you see how frail he is compared to even an elf, and then he is instantly transformed into a super-human, but even this doesn’t make him the invincible hero you’d expect (I was thinking this was a cop-out by the author). Embarassment, naivity and inexperience are constant topics, even in Eragon’s doomed quest for love with Arya, the elf who is 85 years older than him, and who does not appear to return his affections (hopefully she will by book 3).
I think Paolini has tried to make the tale epic in the way LOTR is, but I don’t think he’s succeeded and Eldest seems to be a bridging novel where the pieces are moved and the backstory necessary for book 3 provided. Having said that, it’s a good yarn for those who like heroic stories and the imagery is detailed and consuming. I’m looking forward to the final chapter.