Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Brisingr (Christopher Paolini): A Book Review

Brisingr (Knopf, September 2008) is the just-released third book in the Inheritance cycle by Christopher Paolini. Readers should be forewarned that Inheritance, previously billed as a trilogy, has been expanded into a cycle. In other words, if you're looking for resolution in this book, you won't find it. There is a fourth and allegedly final book coming.

While avid fans may be pleased to see the series extended, this was not welcome news to me. I began reading the book with the impression that this was the third and final book of a trilogy. As a result, throughout the whole book, I wondered when Eragon, the Dragon Rider, and Saphira, his dragon, were going to finally confront archvillain Galbatorix. I was greatly displeased when they never did. I only learned that the series had been expanded into four books when I came to the explanatory note at the end of the book, after the unsatisfying conclusion. This experience probably negatively influences my review.

For those who have not read any of the books in the Inheritance series, this is a fantasy series concerning a warrior, Eragon, the last of the Dragon Riders, and his long and meandering journey toward what we can probably assume will be a final confrontation with archvillain and evil dictator Galbatorix. The first book, Eragon, was begun by Paolini when he was 15 years old and self-published, before becoming so popular that it was picked up by a major publisher. That story was what first caught my interest, and I have been following the saga ever since.

Though occasionally inventive and certainly interesting enough to more or less hold my attention through three lengthy volumes, the series has always had its problems, many of which seem to be exacerbated in this most recent installment.

Perhaps the most obvious problem is that the whole series is quite transparently derivative of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Forgetting for a moment the slight variation of having a friendly dragon the hero gets to ride on, the story is essentially about an alliance of men, elves, and dwarves going up against an unseen foe --- an evil magician and dictator seeking to expand his empire over the formerly peaceful lands. Only our hero will be able to defeat the villain. Sound familiar?

To quote one of the dwarf clan leaders, Íorûnn,

“If Galbatorix emerges triumphant from this war, not even the Beor Mountains will protect us from his wrath. If our realm is to survive, we must see Galbatorix overthrown. Moreover, it strikes me that hiding in caves and tunnels while others decide the fate of Alagaësia is unbecoming for a race as old and powerful as ours. When the chronicles of this age are written, shall they say we fought alongside the humans and the elves, as the heroes of old, or that we sat cowering in our halls like frightened peasants while a battle raged outside our doors?”

The Urgals, who initially sound remarkably like Orcs, eventually join the good side in another slight variation on the theme. If that weren’t enough, go ahead and guess the name of Eragon’s elfin love interest. If you guessed Arwen, close enough. It’s Arya. The hero’s name sounds remarkably like Aragorn, making the pair’s names painfully close to the names of Tolkien’s human-elf couple. All of this sometimes makes the Inheritance cycle read more like Tolkien fan-fiction than anything else.

Paolini, however, seems more concerned with nuanced morality than many fantasy writers, including Tolkien. A strong sensitivity to nature is complemented by a respect for life that makes his hero question the violence he must engage in. There is also an awareness of racism that comes into play when some of the characters question their automatic dislike of the Urgals. Altogether, these factors account for more subtle shadings of morality in these books than the black-and-white good versus evil morality of many a fantasy series.

Because so much of his world and general cast of characters is almost lifted from Tolkien's Middle Earth, it's difficult not to compare the two. Like Sauron, Paolini's villain Galbatorix is unseen and a menace to the entire known world. But Galbatorix, though we know he's a tyrant who enslaves his people, remains unfrightening. He abuses power, yes, but somehow Paolini fails to make these abuses more than a theoretical description. Intellectually, we know he's bad, but there is not the visceral, skin-crawling horror of Tolkien's descriptions of the darkness and stench of Mordor, the poison spreading across Middle Earth.

Eragon, too, often seems to be going through the motions. He’s undecided, it seems at times, even about whether he will oppose Galbatorix. Though Eragon has his own inner turmoil, especially about the killing he must do, it hardly compares to Frodo's grim determination to risk everything to destroy the evil ring he is beginning to covet as it slowly drives him mad.

The decision to expand the series into four books is ironic, considering that one of the major problems is already overwriting that reduces the force of the story greatly. It turns what should be an urgent drive to defeat a powerful and evil foe into a meandering meditation on things like nature, dragons, dwarf society, elf society, magic, homesickness, evil, justice, politics, power, and oh yeah, at some point we may just get around to taking on that evil Galbatorix, but there's certainly no rush about it. It's not as if he's enslaving and killing thousands of people. Oh wait. Actually, he is, but maybe we'll go talk about dwarf politics for another hundred or so pages while we avoid dealing with that.

If Paolini had concentrated on the advice often given to writers to cut out any scene that doesn't move your story forward, he could probably have reduced these first three lengthy books into no more than two. I'm sure fans of his work will argue that this wordiness allows him to enrich and embellish the details of the world he's created (or largely copied from Tolkien), but what suffers is the ability of his writing to compel the reader to care about his characters and fear his villain.

Even at the end of this third book, Galbatorix remains an unfrightening, unseen bad guy who seems too cowardly to leave his castle. Galbatorix lacks Sauron's creeping horror precisely because all the bad things he does are interspersed with so many episodes of trivial but mildly interesting tangential adventures on the part of the heroes. The horror dissipates and fails to build. Galbatorix never shows himself, so we assume he's frightened to come out, especially since Eragon and the rebel Varden don't seem especially driven to confront him. They'll get around to it whenever. Let's go learn some more elf lore for a while.

Sympathy for the characters also suffers, since people who had really faced all the hardships endured by these characters might seem a tad more eager for revenge. Paolini, of course, tells us over and over how much they want their revenge, but it would be nice if he'd show us by having them cut to the chase.

To be sure, there are many interesting ideas and beautifully drawn scenes in these books, but in this grand attempt to create a sweeping fantasy world of complex beauty, the story gets utterly lost. The first book, Eragon, took such a meandering path that I wondered when Eragon would get around to the revenge he had sworn on Galbatorix’s servants, the Ra’zac. In fact, not until this third book, as it turns out.

The second book, Eldest, was better, and I was beginning to think the author had found his stride as he skillfully wove together the twin strands of the stories of Eragon and his cousin Roran. Now, once again, it seems we are stuck in the mire of too many details about inconsequential matters. Dragons and their Riders may live forever, but we mere mortals expect stories to come to a satisfying conclusion at some point. It remains to be seen whether Paolini will pull that off in his fourth book.

One final note: hyphen-worded-dragon-thought is certainly-annoying.



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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more with the above review. It is the most accurate perception of Paolini's work and exactly how I feel about it. I would suggest the writer take heed of these comments and be more influented by them than by the prospect of making more money from an aditional fourth or even fifth installment of this book. That would simply be ridiculous.

Brisingir is a real disappointment.

October 05, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

In some aspects I do agree with the above review, but in ways Paolini had to extend these books a great length mainly because of the first book Eragon. He put Eragon through so many adventures and endless journeys that if not finished properly would make the book unapealing and yes he did have many dry spots in the book i feel he can not change how he is writing the series and just keep writing and drawing the 4th book to a slow conclusion.

October 25, 2008

Blogger davidrozo766 said...

I find your review to be true but now a days good books are hard to find that you tend to just read stories like the ones paolini did. and re reading good books will tend to piss a person off or bore them after a good 10 to 15 re reads. still good review

October 26, 2009

Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this review I seem to find you are an extremely impatient person who has nothing better to do than compare a novice writer's work to a writer as revered as Tolkien. First you are disgusted at the parallels between the two series and then complain about the differences between Eragon and Frodo and Galbatorix and Sauron. All three books, in my opinion, were remarkably written and came together beautifully. As for Eragon's indescision, you could take into account how young he was to have such a burden as the salvation of his people thrust upon him and I think it only realistic that he should be afraid at the outcome of his actions. I suppose we are so used to the headstrong hero who always knows exactly what to do that we expect that of every character. If you don't like how Paolini writes his story, prehaps you should write your own and have people critique it for you. Yes, I'll agree, the Inheritance Cycle and Lord of the Rings have their similarities, but apparently people like it anyways.

January 05, 2010


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