Review by Mateal Lovaas, Flyway Staff
“You haven’t read Eragon?” one of my fifth graders asked me, appalled when he found out that I had not yet read this bestselling book. “Do you know a 15-year-old wrote it?” about four more boys chimed in. The next day, I found the book on my desk with a note from the student telling me he’d lend me his book, because I had to read that book right now.
I first read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Series when I was working as a middle school English and history teacher at the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, California. During what I called “free reading” time, my students would pull out their chosen free-time books, and without fail, I’d have at least one fifth-through-eighth grader reading one of Paolini’s three books, Eragon (self-published in 2001 by a family-owned press and then again in 2003 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers), Eldest (2005), and Brisngr (2008). But until one of my students lent me his Eragon book, I had no interest in reading books about dragons, especially ones which had garnered such bad reviews. But I read it, and soon a second student lent me Eldest and a third Brisingr. The writer and grammarian in me winced my way through the books’ deadly-slow pace and choppy, bloated prose, but another part of me reveled in the unique magical elements of this fantasy series—the same part of me that can’t wait for Random House to release the last book on November 8. With this upcoming release of the fourth and final book in the cycle, Inheritance (which is also, confusingly, the name of the whole cycle), it is a good time to revisit this hotly contested series.
Besides perhaps the Twilight series, I can’t think of any other book in recent young adult literary history that has such critics, such vicious haters, while simultaneously selling millions of copies. Yes, Harry Potter has its critics, but a quick search on the Internet proves that they are much less abundant than anti-Inheritance folks.
Let me highlight just a handful of critiques about the first three books in the Inheritance series:
- unwieldy and unchecked prose
- significant grammatical errors
- meaningless, overused violence simply for the sake of violence
- Eragon’s lack of emotion
- general lack of developed characters, thereby causing a lack of reader investment in the characters
- weak dialogue
- clichéd descriptions and immature style
- too many tangents
- off-the-stage villain (readers never truly see the evil King Galbatorix)
- dropped characters
- slow pacing, often for hundreds of pages at a time
- extension of the series from a trilogy to a quartet
- poor resolutions
- lack of originality, sometimes veering on overt copycatting of other fantasy series
This last critique is arguably the most salient. Any reader of the series can clearly pick out an uncanny number of similarities to Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, His Dark Materials, Beowulf, and Dune, to the point that Paolini’s series feels simply like an amalgamation of all that came before him. Yet despite these points, and a myriad of other complaints gushing indignantly over the Internet waves, it is undeniable that Paolini is doing something right. To date, the first three books have sold a total of 25 million copies worldwide. The first book, Eragon, stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 121 weeks. It has been translated into 49 foreign languages and made into a movie. And when I run a Google search for “Inheritance series,” I come up with over 22 million results in 0.14 seconds. The fourth book, Inheritance, is primed for success with an impressive first-printing of 2.5 million copies and an eighteen-city tour starting on the release date. I can’t imagine what Paolini’s advance must have been for this last book.
I agree with nearly every complaint I have ever read or heard about the series. Yet the series’ redeeming qualities, however sparse, are actually enough to keep me reading. One selling point is Paolini’s fantastical, detailed world that spirits readers away. Even if the world of Alagaësia is a striking mixture of several other fantasy worlds, for me, that does not dilute the fact that Paolini describes it so resolutely and adds his own unique features. Paolini models the ten-mile high Beor Mountains, home to the dwarves, after the jagged Beartooth Mountains of his Montana home. In Eragon, Paoloni takes the time to languish over the land where Eragon is hunting:
The sky was clear and dark, and a slight breeze stirred the air. A silvery cloud drifted over the mountains that surrounded him, its edges glowing with ruddy light cast from the harvest moon cradled between two peaks. Streams flowed down the mountains from stolid glaciers and glistening snowpacks. A brooding mist crept along the valley’s floor. (Eldest)
His descriptions of landscape make me yearn to enter the world of Alagaësia.
In Eldest, I was impressed with Paolini’s elf land, Ellesméra, despite its similarities to The Lord of the Rings’s Rivendell. One unique element, though, is Paolini’s elven lodgings, grown in and of the trees. When Eragon enters Ellesméra for the first time, he slowly realizes that the trees are in fact dwellings:
But what he had taken to be clusters of lumpy, twisted trees were in fact graceful buildings that grew directly out of the pines. One tree bulged at the base to form a two-story house before sinking its roots into the loam [….] Another house was nestled between three pines, which were joined to it through a series of curved branches. Reinforced by those flying buttresses, the house rose five levels, light and airy. (Eldest 222)
The trees mold themselves into stairways, which spiral around their chunky tree bases and guide elves up into the branches. There are walkways and doorways into the insides of trunks. Eragon’s own tree dwelling, crafted by the trees just for Dragon Riders, is high up, has nearly 360-degree views over the emerald forests of Ellesméra, and feels inspiringly open to the elements. There is also a cavernous entryway for Eragaon’s dragon, Saphira, to enter, and a special, carved-out, wooden, bowl-like area for her to sleep in.
The fact that Eragon and Saphira share lodgings in Ellesméra speaks to another compelling feature of the Inheritance cycle: rider and dragon share a fiercely loving and unique relationship. Eragon and Saphira spend all their time together, can speak telepathically, and share the same difficult mission. Saphira herself is also such a loveable character. Sometimes she calls Eragon her little “hatchling,” even though it was she who hatched from an egg. Saphira can be sweet as pie with Eragon, but also harsh and sassy. She almost always shares what she thinks, even if just in gestures that show she is bored: “Eragon bowed his head and retreated to Saphira, who lay curled on a bed of moss, amusing herself by releasing plumes of smoke from her nostrils and watching them roil out of sight” (Eldest 220).
Paolini imaged Saphira as the “perfect friend.” In that, I think he succeeded. As a reader, I found myself loving Eragon and Saphira’s relationship, feeling jealous of the inextricable bond between human and creature.
Ultimately, perhaps part of the Inheritance series’ success is the simple enduring nature of coming-of-age novels. As with Oliver, Holden Caufield, Scout and Jem, Frodo, Harry Potter, and so many other characters, Eragon and Saphira have to face their world, and they grow up while doing so. And Paolini doesn’t make the growing up process cliché or easy. Eragon, for example, becomes more like the elves, physically and emotionally, but also eventually becomes hardened to killing, which is unlike the elves.
As an educator, I think any book or series, no matter its flaws, that gets kids passionate about reading—which for this cycle involves reading thousands of pages—is a success. Personally, I’m excited for the November 8th release of the last book in the series, Inheritance, but not excited enough to pre-order my own copy. For this series, the library will do for me.