Sunday, September 4, 2005

Book Review: Eldest by Christopher Paolini, Book 2 of the Inheritance Trilogy

Darkness falls…despair abounds…evil reigns…

Eldest opens with Eragon looking upon the battlefield of Tronjheim. It has been three days since the battle has been won, three days since Eragon killed the Shade Durza. But the mood is bleak, there is no rejoicing over the victory. The stronghold of the dwarves and the Varden — Farthen Dur is littered with bodies. So many have been killed and the battlefield is so wet with blood that it soaks through the soles of Eragon's boots. The battle is over for now, but every one knows that King Galbatorix has not been completely defeated.

And Eragon himself is scarred and fragile. Though he managed to kill Durza and is now known as Shadeslayer, Durza's sword has left a battle injury so extensive that Eragon, "the only hope for resisting the Empire" of Galbatorix, wonders how a cripple like him will survive the inevitable conflicts ahead.

Then in a surprise attack, a group of Urgals murder Ajihad, the leader of the Varden and take the Twins and Eragon's friend, Murtagh prisoner. The Varden's Council of Elders wants to nominate a leader who'll be a puppet in their hands. They want Eragon to throw his weight behind them and swear allegiance to the Council. The dwarves too would like to have a say in the matter and want Eragon to support their choice. Arya, the ambassador of the elves, keeps her own counsel. Eragon is caught in these uneasy circumstances — a time of power games and strategizing.

So begins Eldest, the second book of the Inheritance Trilogy — with death and turmoil. In this eagerly awaited sequel to Eragon, Christopher Paolini continues the story of Eragon, a 16-year-old farm-lad and orphan who discovers his destiny as a Dragon Rider.

Readers will also know the fantastic story behind the publishing of the first book. Paolini wrote the story about a teenager and a dragon when he was 15. His parents published it. Paolini fulfilled his own destiny to be a writer — the book went on to become a best-seller in 2003.

Eldest, like the first book Eragon, is primarily about a boy and his dragon. But it is also a bit different. The author is now 21 and the writing has matured. While Eragon was essentially simplistic, Eldest is layered with other themes and multiple narratives. The writer also shows his skill in holding all of them together and blending them in the end for the climax.

Nasuada, with Eragon's support, takes her father's place leading the Varden. She decides to send Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, to Ellesméra where the elves will train them further in the arts of magic and war so that he can eventually be ready to fight Galbatorix.

In the elven forest city of Ellesméra, Eragon and Saphira are tutored in magic, battle skills, and the ancient language by the wise former Rider Oromis (the mourning sage, the cripple who is whole) and his elderly dragon Glaedr. It's here, during training, that Eragon comes to know the true extent of his battle injury. His back often explodes in pain, and he suffers seizures so bad that he feels powerless. Soon Eragon develops a fatalistic acceptance of his limitations and is plagued with self-doubt. He even wonders if he is the rider meant to take on Galbatorix or merely someone who is to pave the way for other possible riders.

Meanwhile, back at Carvahall, Eragon's village, his cousin Roran has returned from Therinsford to find that his cousin has disappeared, his father is dead, and his land is ruined. Roran, bitter about his father's death, blames Eragon, but he's not sure why-- he only feels that in some way Eragon has been responsible for all that happened. If only Eragon had not kept the strange stone (which turns out to be the egg from which Saphira hatched) that he had found in the Spine perhaps things would now be different. On his return, he had hoped to court the beautiful Katrina and eventually ask for her hand in marriage. However, he no longer has a home or farm and he has no money of his own that'll help him win the approval of Sloan, Katrina's father. Roran who was returning to Carvahall with the hope of putting his life together again is thus filled with an inexplicable resentment.

Roran soon becomes a target for Galbatorix because he is Eragon's cousin. The horrible creatures known as Ra'zac, are after him because they hope to get from him information about Eragon. Roran flees and hides in the mountains to save the village. But within a short time the village is under siege by Galbatorix's soldiers. Roran returns and organizes Carvahall to resist the Ra'zac and Galbatorix's soldiers. The Ra'zac however take Katrina captive and that event begins the true journey for Roran, and he discovers in himself an ability he never knew he possessed.

He leads the villagers away on a desperate escape over the mountains from Carvahall to the kingdom of Surda in a dangerous and frightening adventure to find both safety for them and a way to get Katrina back. And along the way, he comes to hear of a Dragon Rider who is brave, strong, and the hope of Alagaësia.

Paolini skillfully alternates between the stories Eragon and Roran, often also weaving in the story of Nasuada, the new leader of the Varden who has taken them to Surda to prepare for battle. And these narratives are interspersed with romance: Eragon's infatuation with Arya, the princess of the elves and Saphira, the only female dragon around, attraction towards her mentor, the dragon Glaedr.

The two narratives move surely and inevitably toward a massive battle with the forces of Galbatorix on the burning plains of Alagaësia. The battle, as in any fantasy, is of epic proportions and is vividly narrated by Paolini. In the midst of battle, Eragon finds that there's another enemy rider, more powerful and skilled than him. He and Saphira confront and fight the rider and his giant red dragon over a bloody battlefield but lose to the enemy rider's superior skill and power. Eragon learns a shocking secret about his parentage (an echo/influence of Star Wars?) during the duel and realizes that the prophecy that he'll be betrayed by his own blood has come true. Eldest ends with the promise of yet another dangerous journey, this time for a rescue and for revenge. More importantly Eldest ends with an ominous twist that sets up the third book that is to follow.

Like the hero of his book, Eragon, Christopher Paolini has grown up and matured a lot since the last book, Eragon, was written. He displays a better and more solid grip of the fantastic tradition (some might gripe that it is more fantasy and less novel). The novel, like any similar fantasy novel/classic heroic quest , has a predictable cast of characters and races: dragons that breath fire, the dwarves who love their stony realms, the noble elves who are one with nature, and the hero who is unaware of the true extent of his abilities and his destiny. But unlike Eragon — which seemed to have drawn heavily on the mythology established by the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and especially Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series — Eldest is more of Paolini's book.

Paolini demonstrates his great skill at story telling and shows that he has awesome knowledge of the world — right from the regimented lives ants in an anthill, to metal work, to philosophy and art. His grasp on linguistics is commendable. The "ancient language" in his book, the languages of the elves and the dwarves (and to some extent, the story) show the influence of old Nordic languages and Scandinavian mythology.

Paolini's grasp on the "geography" and "history" of his tale is also amazing. With great skill, Paolini builds the background of his tale. He narrates the myths of the dwarves, explains their religion. He does the same for the elves, explaining their past and their present beliefs. He also explains the origin and the purpose of the Dragon riders. The political equations between the different races and kingdoms is also very well nuanced. But it is in describing the lay and details of his land that Paolini excels the most. Right from the underground city of Farthen Dur with its glory carved in stone, to enchanted forest city of the elves — Ellesméra, a fairy land where "the legends of old still bestride the earth," to the bleak and cruel Hadarac desert, Paolini is at his best when he is describing the beauties of the various places in his Alagaësia.

It is astonishing that a 21-year-old has written a fantasy novel of this caliber. The novel teems with monsters, dragons, elves, dwarves, wizards and witches, magical forests, lovely princesses, brave warriors and powerful spells. Eldest should easily be a hit with fans of fantasy.

Eldest, though mistaken as a children's book, has everything for all audiences. It will appeal to adults because it's creative, well-written, and though a fantasy, it touches on many an adult concern — the story may be fantastic, but a discerning reader will find that it has never "abandoned" the real world at all . Kids will love it because, after all it's a story about a boy and his dragon — it's imaginative, heroic, has enough with action and at the same time it is about growing up and assuming responsibility.

Many will never consider picking up a book that has a dragon on its cover. For once, overcome your misgivings and read Eldest (and Eragon). You'll be pleasantly surprised with the novel's richness and sophistication. Undoubtedly, you'll also be thrilled with a tale that is narrated, beyond any question, by a storyteller who loves and enjoys the tale he is weaving.

I am eagerly awaiting book three.


Dhar said...

My personal take on Eldest is slightly different. I felt it was as if a computer program had been fed as many Fantasy novels as possible and had been asked to produce a new one from the lot. And out comes Eldest. :(

The only thing special about the novel was the fact that a kid wrote it. Otherwise I found it pretty mediocre.


mandar talvekar said...

Hi Dhar,
As you must have realized, my take on Eldest (and Eragon) is different from yours.
I agree Paolini's books do show a lot of influences from other fantasy greats. His Elves are very much from LOTR. His depiction of magic and the dragons show a strong influence of Earthsea. And the story is a typical hero's "Quest."
But I think his take on it -- the way he has combined the different elements that have influenced him -- his uniquely his own.
And of course, a part of the charm of the story lies in the fact that it is being told by a person who is so young.
I wonder if ten years from now, he will think, "I could have done it so differently (and better) now."

Anonymous said...

Does it have to be a work of art? Does it have to be literature?

It was enough for me just to be was enough for me to spend some time in his world.

I thought Eldest was a much better book than Eragon (from a technical standpoint)...Paolini has certainly matured.

I am looking foward to book 3. Trust me, it will be a slam dunk.


Anonymous said...

It doesn't really matter how lengthy the story got, does it? To me it made it all more exciting.

Though the story was based upon other books, Chrisopher was able to put together inhis own exciting way.

All of the epic plots formed where good clashed against evil and the strength of the warriors tested against eachother made one of the best fantasies I've ever read.

I can't wait until book 3 where everything will come together. It will be a fantastic series.

Anonymous said...

personally, i felt that Eldest concentrated a little too much on nuances of Elvish culture and the "Ancient Language", threatening to sway from the main plot.
Paolini paid excessive attention to the mythological aspect.
Also, influences on both Eragon and Eldest of other fantasy works like LOTR and WoT are painfully evident. Humans, Elves, Dwarves! Clearly reminds one of Tolkien doesn't it?
Hrothgar's hall in Farthen Dur is too reminiscent of Denethor's in LOTR.
The very telepathic connection between human and Dragon which the series bosats of smells of Perrin's connection with wolves in WoT. The "Forsworn" are a take from Jordan's "Forsaken". Elves singing to trees is borrowed from the Talent Ogier possessed in WoT. Other parallelisms can be drawn as well.
Though a charming book, considering the age of the author, a little more originality won't go amiss.