Saturday, December 17, 2011

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini, 2011

Thorn roared, and then he sprang up from the street into the air above the black-shrike-thorn-cave and hung there, flapping heavily to maintain his position. He appeared as a featureless black silhouette against the wall of flames rising from the houses behind him, save for his translucent wings, which glowed orange and crimson.

He lunged toward her, reaching out with his serrated claws.

Saphira waited until the last possible moment; then she leaped to the side, off the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and Thorn rammed headfirst into the base of the cathedral's central spire. The tall-hole-ridden-stone-spike shuddered under the impact, and the very top of it--an ornate golden rod--toppled over and plunged more than four hundred feet to the square below.

Roaring with frustration, Thorn struggled to right himself. His hindquarters slid into the opening Saphira had torn in the roof, and he scrabbled against the tiles as he tried to claw his way back out.

While he did, Saphira flew to the front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave and positioned herself on the opposite side of the spire Thorn had collided with.

She gathered her strength, then batted the spire with her right forepaw.

Statues and carved decorations shattered underneath her foot; clouds of dust clogged her nostrils; and bits of stone and mortar rained down upon the square. The spire held, though, so she struck it again.

Thorn's bellowing took on a frantic note as he realized what she was doing, and he strove even harder to pull himself free.

On Saphira's third blow, the tall-stone-spike cracked at the base and, with agonizing slowness, collapsed backward, falling toward the roof. Thorn only had time to utter a furious snarl, and then the tower of rubble landed on top of him, knocking him down into the shell of the ruined building and burying hum under piles of rubble.

The sound of the spire smashing to pieces echoed across the whole of the rat-nest-city, like a clap of rolling thunder.
--- (pages 320-321)

Eragon, the first novel in the Inheritance Cycle, was published in 2002 when its author was only eighteen--he began writing it when he was only fifteen. Eragon is clearly the work of a young author; the writing is uneven and stilted, the dialogue an awkward mix of modern and faux-medieval and the plot is a Star Wars carbon copy, with dollops of Lord of the Rings added for good measure. What made the novel so much fun was Paolini's energy and endless enthusiasm for his subject matter; he wrote like a precocious kid having the time of his life. It didn't hurt that the plot, though derivative, moved like a runaway train, and that his world is filled with dragons, elves, magic, battles, dwarves and monsters.

The next novel, Eldest (2005), had an entirely different set of problems from its predecessor. Paolini mostly abandoned the puppy-dog-eagerness and stylistic simplicity of Eragon in favor of a long-winded, pretentious style, as though he was responding to his critics with a thesaurus by his side. His attempts at incorporating New Age-y wisdom and chunks of metaphysics into the story didn't work out too well, either. The penultimate installment, 2008's Brisingr, brought greater balance and maturity to the series, despite a draggy pace and a tacked-on ending. For all his other faults, Paolini has always been a crackerjack storyteller and I've enjoyed his books for a long time. I've been eagerly looking forward to Inheritance all year. As the final book in the series, Inheritance promised to be a treat, the epic conclusion to a story that I'm pretty invested in after all these years.

Alagaesia, the world of the Inheritance Cycle, is fairly similar to a Middle-earth with more dragons and less hobbits. The Cycle follows Eragon, a young human who discovers that he is one of the final Dragon Riders, a breed of warrior that died out a hundred years ago, when an evil Rider named Galbatorix destroyed them and declared himself king. Together with his dragon Saphira, Eragon joins a rebel organization called the Varden that's dedicated to defeating the insanely powerful Galbatorix. Quests and sword battles and poorly written romance ensues; you get the picture.

Inheritance finds Eragon and the Varden nearing the end of their military campaign against the Empire, but they are no closer to defeating Galbatorix, who has the power of hundreds of dragon souls at his disposal (don't ask), as well as a powerful slave in the form of Murtagh, Eragon's half-brother and fellow Rider. As the Empire and the Varden begin their final clash, Eragon and Saphira must unravel a decades-old secret to find Galbatorix's weakness and destroy him before their rebellion is forever crushed.

Like all endings, Inheritance has a difficult job to do. It has to resolve two thousand pages of conflict and dozens of subplots in a satisfying way, it has to compare favorably with its predecessors and leave the readers feeling like their investment of time and emotion has been worthwhile. For me, the novel was a totally absorbing and worthy end to the story; in fact, it's probably my favorite book of the four. Paolini's skills as a storyteller are undeniable and even though his writing still leaves something to be desired, he does a pretty darn good job of finishing the cycle with a bang. The characters are well-served by the story, the plot moves along nicely (a couple of dull chapters notwithstanding) and there are many, many action scenes, something that Paolini has a real knack for. The climactic Eragon/Galbatorix encounter is exciting and there are giant snails, too. What more do you want?

Paolini's writing is still sometimes pretentious and overly detailed, and his love affair with little-known, barely appropriate words continues unabated. He has progressed by leaps and bounds, though. His dialogue, despite the occasional B-movie exchange, has gotten much better and his characterization, once thin and bloodless, is now a little more nuanced. I do get annoyed that everyone in the series, no matter their status or upbringing, talks like an English professor or that Eragon's dragon mentor gives half-baked Zen advice that Yoda would deem spurious, but these are minor and slightly endearing flaws that I've grown used to after hundreds of pages. His strengths as a storyteller outweigh his technical flaws and he could easily stand with many of the successful writers working in the epic fantasy genre. For instance, his prose and character-building outstrips Robert Jordan's by a sizable margin, even if his mythology lacks the Wheel of Time's complexity and scope. Paolini is not a great world-builder like Tolkien or George R. R. Martin; Alagaesia and the races that dwell there feel like they've been brought in piecemeal from other fantasy works. But his books do have an admirably complex and consistent system of magic that he uses only rarely for deus ex machina.

One thing that Paolini does very well, and always has, is action scenes. Inheritance is full of endless battles, fight, skirmishes and duels, all described in exhaustively gory detail. The action sometimes reads like the novelization of a video game, complete with levels, a hit point meter and a boss at the end of each mission. Though it does get a bit repetitive after a while, the constant over-the-top adventure keeps those pages turning, and Paolini is pretty darned good at keeping readers on their toes with his creativity and propulsive writing. The final siege is a truly exciting and epic sequence, culminating in a terrific struggle between Roran and the commander of the Empire's troops. The dragon/dragon combat is quite thrilling as well. Sure, most of the fighting has the gleefully unbelievable appeal of a Hollywood action movie (the good guys' seemingly limitless power is a bit wearying), but it's done so well that I don't really care that he goes overboard at times.

Ultimately, Inheritance's secret weapon is the characters. Paolini started out with a pretty cardboard cast of heroes, villains, rogues, mentors and cannon fodder, but as the series has progressed, the main characters have developed into likable, somewhat relatable people with distinct personalities. The characters may not be quite three-dimensional (everybody stays in their roles, for the most part), but they are well-drawn. For all that his occasional whining is annoying (not to mention that odd pacifistic streak that only pops up every now and then), Eragon is a distinctive and fully-realized hero who has never been a simple Magical Orphan protagonist. Saphira is very much a character in her own right, and Paolini has done a great job in making her both alien and familiar. Arya, Eragon's elven love interest, has been an annoyance for most of the series--she was initially written with an almost fawning appreciation for her beauty and tenacity, despite that the fact that she had the winning personality of Mr. Spock. Inheritance singlehandedly redeems her in my eyes: for the first time, Paolini hits the right balance between Arya's human traits and her elvish ones. She's still a bit less compelling than she should be, given her crucial role in the story, but her dynamic with Eragon is more smoothly written here than in Eragon or Eldest.

The series' two breakout characters, Eragon's cousin Roran and his half-brother Murtagh, also get a fine showing in Inheritance. Roran, who has graduated from a minor supporting character to a secondary protagonist, is not the deepest or most complicated character, but his resourcefulness, tenacity and unbending determination to create a safe life for his wife and family are strangely compelling. I like the fact that Paolini uses him to occasionally cut through all the magical and metaphysical crap that sometimes burdens the story. He also gets all the best action scenes, despite the fact that he has no superhuman skills of his own except a really good hammer arm. If someone out there has not already dubbed him Captain Hammer, I'll be astonished.

Murtagh is one of the few morally murky characters in the saga, and certainly the most interesting. Paolini had given us only relatively brief appearances from Murtagh up until Inheritance, probably realizing his potential. Murtagh is the heart of the final book's most intriguing storyline, as he struggles to defy Galbatorix in order to save the woman he loves. This is the darkest place that the cycle has gone to so far, and Paolini deserves credit for an excellent piece of character development. Murtagh's eventual triumph over Galbatorix is a bit too reminiscent of Darth Vader and the Emperor, but it's still a good conclusion to the series' best character arc.

Speaking of Galbatorix, the first appearance of the evil Rider was one of the things I was looking forward to in the fourth book. Like the shark in Jaws, Galbatorix has been confined to the shadows for the first three books in the Cycle, a device that was intriguing at first, but eventually started to feel like a cop-out, to the point where he doesn't seem like much of a threat. So much of the mythology rests on Galbatorix's motives and actions, his endless power is discussed over and over, his evil and cruelty is talked about and reiterated. Yet we don't see what is arguably the entire cycle's central character until halfway through the last book. When he finally shows up, it's an anticlimax. After that much buildup, it would have been nearly impossible for Galbatorix to live up to his reputation.

To Paolini's credit, Galbatorix is not just a sneering mustache-twirler like Durza; his dialogue is appropriately silky, his threats veiled, but convincingly dangerous. As a villain, he's fine. As the mega-super-arch-villain of the entire series, he's a disappointment. There's not enough time to develop him as a character or to deal with the massive amount of backstory that has accumulated. He's introduced, he sneers a lot, and then he's dispatched in a fairly satisfying manner. We don't get much anger from him, or any sense of the insanity that he's known for. The instigating event that led him to evil--the death of his dragon--is not so much as touched upon. Keeping the Big Bad under wraps might have seemed like a good idea early on in the series, but the strategy ends up being Inheritance's major weakness.

Still, the climax is far from disappointing. Paolini neatly combines several plot threads to provide an ending that's both cathartic and reasonable from a plot standpoint. I might have liked a more personal confrontation between Eragon and Galbatorix, but it's still a perfectly suitable and fitting conclusion to the series' main storyline. Paolini then makes the dubious choice of following the climax with over a hundred pages of falling action. And this is where I start having problems.

For one, it feels as though he's raising as many questions as he's answering in the final stretch. Several important characters get open-ended fates that will probably end up getting addressed in a companion novel, which feels like a slightly lazy way to deal with them. Despite the length of the final chapters, not much happens in them until Eragon makes a crucial decision. Which is where my second problem lies. This decision makes little sense from a plot or character standpoint; it only occurs so that the book can have a dramatic ending that fits in with a prophetic dream Eragon had in the first volume. It's a gutsy ending, one that Paolini knew would be guaranteed to anger his readers, and I can't help but respect him for taking a risk like that. The ending also breaks up the Eragon/Arya relationship for good, a highly unusual choice considering the fact that their relationship has been one of the central points of the entire series. I was actually surprised how much I cared about the outcome, so I suppose he accomplished what he set out to do. It is not perhaps the perfect ending for the series (or for the characters), but it's one that I can accept.

Inheritance itself is an excellent conclusion to the cycle: gripping, moving and weighty. This is a more mature work than anything that's come before, with fewer plot holes and less contrivance. Characters that have grown up before our eyes get fitting final arcs and mysteries that have been in place since the beginning are paid off. It's not a perfect novel or a perfect ending, by any means, but it's enormously entertaining and mostly satisfying. The journey of Eragon and Saphira has been greatly enjoyable for many years, and I'm sorry to let them go, although I'm pleased that their final adventure is also their finest.

NEXT UP: More YA fantasy, with Catching Fire.

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