About a year ago, before starting to write The Unexpected Traveler, I asked an English professor at Mesa State to recommend a couple current fantasy books he thought were well written. He suggested a couple, and I suppose I ought to be reviewing those, not Eragon by Christopher Paolini, which was not on the professor’s list.
But…Eragon is the series that’s selling these days. It’s wildly popular and for awhile occupied the rarified air atop the NY Times bestseller list. Yet it has garnered nothing except critical…well…criticism. No reviewer likes it. They consider it to be immature—it is, after all, the work of a teenager—and not worth reading. (There’s a strong smell of jealousy here! Paolini has a popular book and they don’t.)
But then again, J.K. Rowling went through the same experience. Quite
a number of folks thought the first Harry Potter book was pretty amateurish. And, I guess, it is—I cringe here and there while rereading it. And yet she sold. Phenomenally. Still does. The critics have largely been silenced, mostly by being told to shut up and get used to it. The book reintroduced reading to an entire generation. You can guess: I love the Harry Potter series. Why do you think my three broomstick books are…well…fantasy?
So, here we have this 15-year-old whiz kid who starts a book that four years later is at the top of the fantasy heap. What gives? That’s why I bought it. Just what is it about the book that keeps the reader reading? I want to know. Can I apply some of that magic (ahem) to The Unexpected Traveler?
Easy to cringe
I didn’t need to re-read Eragon to cringe. Paolini uses short sentences. Adverbs and adjectives abound. No verb seems to stand alone. “Excited, he lifted a thin lip in a snarl.” Does this mean he had a thick lip too? Or maybe multiple lips. What’s wrong with saying he snarled—snarl is, after all, a verb. And sometimes the prose is a bit breathless: “Dark eyebrows rested above his intense brown eyes.” Okay, but I do wonder where they go when not resting. “Eragon watched for danger for several long minutes, but the only thing that moved was the mist.” Perhaps “only the mist moved?” But usually I think of mist as either clinging or drifting. How about “the mist drifted while Eragon watched?” Hmm…could use some editing.
Okay, okay, after a few short chapters, I sorta got into the rhythm. Staccato. Staccato. Staccato. Sort of like endless iambic pentameter without a hint of rest. We’re seeing the world through the eyes of a 15-year-old. Hmm…written by a 15-year-old. Who would be better positioned to know how a 15-year-old feels? That’s an interesting point. In About Phillip, now on Kindle, I peer into the head of a 15-year-old. Guess what? Paolini convinces me Eragon (our hero) is 15. His world view is that of someone 15. Eragon’s vocabulary and questions come straight from a fairly bright kid of 15. The voice is authentic, if annoying. I take note of this point. The Unexpected Traveler is written in the first person by someone supposedly 27 years old. A critiquer said that Peter, the hero, sounds more like he’s 35. Point taken.
Yes, I kept reading. At first it was because I wanted to observe Paolini’s style. But it didn’t take long to get hooked. To make it simple: it’s the story, stupid! Just like it is with Harry Potter. Something’s going on, Eragon doesn’t know what it is, and his quest (the standard fantasy epic action-adventure quest) became my quest. I wanted to learn about this young dragon-keeper’s magic as much as he did. And, I do have to admit, Paolini’s writing is remarkably visual. From time to time he throws a sop to the other senses.
Now, I do have some issues. Not everyone in the book is 15, but they sound like they are. For example, a stoic soldier, Eragon’s captor, finds the tables turned and Eragon wants information. The loyal soldier says nothing. Eragon threatens him with a prolonged, painful death. So the soldier pops out with this: “All right, just don’t put that in me.” Uh huh. From willing to die for his (evil) king to colloquial English in one easy step. Nope. My willing suspension of disbelief faltered, but I forced myself back into the story. (Parenthetically I point out everyone speaks idiomatic English, and yet there’s this “pure” language lurking in the background in which it is impossible to lie. I would think all these creatures would have languages of their own—of varying degrees of sophistication.)
Here’s another issue: Ergon’s adventures come at us one at a time. He solves the problem and moves onto the next. We have this vague idea that the unseen and very evil king wants him, but there’s no real thread to all these adventures. It’s almost as though any one of them could have been omitted. I would like to have seen each at least provide a clue for the next or somehow deepen the mystery. Or, better yet, have several adventures moving in parallel, something Rowling does with remarkable ease.
And Eragon’s initial motive, which lasts quite awhile, is revenge. Revenge is not a pretty motive and one who seeks it is not endearing. But Eragon comes around about a third of the way into the book, realizing he’s into something deeper. I’d like to have seen more of the transition, because it’s key to what Eragon becomes.
Then there’s that dragon. She’s one of a kind with no living kin. She’s had no training or mentoring from a mama dragon or her papa. Yet she’s instantly the wise one. Okay, so dragons are naturally wise. But even the wisest man or dragon head to learn that wisdom somewhere. Hers pops up out of nowhere. Sorry, even dogs have to learn to hunt from their peers and forebears.
As visual as Paolini is, I had trouble visualizing Tronjheim and environs. It sounds like a wondrous place, full of magic, but it seemed as though Paolini was rushing a bit. The final battle scene takes place there, except for a few convenient enemies who make mischief at the very end (I won’t give it away).
Where’s the ending?
And here’s my biggest criticism. The book doesn’t end. It just stops. Yes, the nasties have been beaten back, at least for now, and Eragon and his dragon are becoming quite the team, but nearly all the mysteries remain unresolved. Ouch! You can be assured that at some point curiosity will get the better of me and I’ll buy the sequel, probably for Kindle. But I understand that one doesn’t end either. I guess I’m stuck now.
And yet it’s compelling
Bottom line? Let’s be nice and call this “early work.” The story compels the reader more with every page. I think Christopher Paolini has a tiger by the tail. Let’s just hope he’s not another in a long line of people who do their best work while young. Even Einstein did his best work as a very young man—he spent the rest of his life looking for the unified field theory, which he never found.
Oh, yeah, the movie. The eponymous movie is universally panned. A close reading of IMDB would indicate it lost money—lots of money—meaning there won’t be any more in the series. But…as I write this the movie is winging its way here via NetFlix. I’ll comment after I see it.
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