Christopher Paolini, Eldest (Knopf, 2005)

Eragon, the 2002 debut novel from then-teenager Christopher Paolini, quickly struck a chord with young readers of fantasy novels. Last fall it was turned into a major motion picture that was quite enjoyable, even though the story was rather severely abbreviated relative to the book. It is also part one of the Inheritance trilogy, of which Eldest is the second part. The third book is still being written, and its title has not as of yet been officially revealed.

The action in Eldest begins immediately after the climactic battle of Eragon. The Varden, a league of rebels united against the wicked king Galbatorix, has defeated an army of fiendish Urgals with the help of the dwarves, the mysterious elf maiden Arya, and above all, the young dragon rider Eragon and his blue dragon Sapphira. Eragon slew the evil shade Durza in the battle, but had become badly scarred in the process. The victory turns out to be short-lived, however, as a surprise ambush by the Urgals results in the death of Ajihad, the Varden's leader, and the abduction of Eragon's close friend Murtagh. Eragon and Sapphira need to visit the elves to resume their training in preparation for the inevitable showdown with Galbatorix. They travel with Arya and Eragon's dwarf friend Orik to the elvish land of Ellesméra, leaving Ajihad's daughter Nasuada in tenuous control of the Varden and their many factions. Eragon spends much time in Ellesméra under the tutelage of Oromis, himself a dragon rider, while Sapphira learns from Glaedr, an ancient, wounded gold dragon. Eragon also realizes that he has fallen in love with Arya, and tries to win her heart.

Meanwhile, Eragon's cousin Roran returns to the town of Carvahall, to find that Galbatorix has sent an army there, along with two man-eating Ra'zac, in order to capture Roran as bait for Eragon and destroy anyone else who stands in their way. The townspeople choose resistance to death or slavery. After holding back the army and the Ra'zac at much cost, they are forced to abandon Carvahall and look for refuge among the Varden. Roran becomes their unlikely and somewhat reluctant leader as they commence an impossible journey. Despite the trilogy ostensibly centering on Eragon and Sapphira, most of the action between the very beginning of Eldest and the battle at the end revolves around Roran.

Two aspects of Paolini's writing of Eldest have received frequent criticism. The first is that the story is heavily derivative of other well-known fantasy epics, most notably The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The claim isn't really disputable. The elves and the dwarves, with their respective languages and mannerisms, won't offer many surprises to anybody who has ever read Tolkien or even played Dungeons and Dragons. Furthermore, many plot twists will immediately look familiar. The most notable of these involves a dramatic revelation, in the climactic scene of the second part of the trilogy, concerning a close relative of the young hero. While these make it difficult to compare Paolini's writing favorably to the works which he borrows from, they can still be mostly forgiven because the writing is engaging and highly entertaining, and can hold the reader's attention through at least two lengthy books. A more specific criticism of Eldest concerns the lack of action on Eragon's side of the story. I didn't agree with that one so much, because I didn't feel that the chapters concerning Eragon's tutelage dragged. Character development is important after all, especially when it's already been established that the story will continue beyond this book.

So Eldest, like Eragon before it, isn't perfect but does make for fun reading. I'd have no qualms recommending it to fans of fantasy books. I found the pacing to be generally good, and Paolini does a fine job of shifting between different characters in the story. I also found that a few details in the first book that seemed superfluous, like the descriptions of various meals, turned out to have a point in the context of certain revelations of the second, so I think it's important to judge the trilogy as a whole more than by its individual parts. In that regard, the third part has been set up very well, and I look forward to seeing the Inheritance trilogy through to its conclusion.

Overall grade: B+

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