I’ve begun to notice a worrying trend in fantasy novels these days. It seems like more and more people are writing epic length books and epic length series when they could just as easily have told their story in half the number of pages. Not only are many of these books a prodigious waste of paper, they do the authors a horrible disservice. Most of the time there’s a decent enough story lurking somewhere within the dross, if only the publishers had taken the time to properly edit the books. However, because they’ve been allowed to wander off in all directions authors learn all sorts of bad habits and their books either become progressively worse or appear to as we lose patience with them. There are times I want to reach into a book and shake the author by the shoulders and yell, “Get to the point already”.
When Christopher Paolini was 15 he self-published the young adult fantasy book Eragon. When he started to have some moderate success with sales on his own, Knopf, a division of Random House, republished the book and bought the rights to the series. Eragon and its sequel Eldest had shown a great deal of promise. An exciting adventure story filled with magic and magical beings. Sure it wasn’t the most original of ideas, but there were at least enough new wrinkles thrown in to make the first two installments compelling and interesting to read. Some of the sub plots were probably unnecessary but they at least helped further the story and didn’t interfere with its forward motion. However, even before the release of a third book, Brisingir — in what was supposed to have been a trilogy — there were indications Paolini was running into trouble. For along with the announcement of its forthcoming publication came the news that the series was being extended to a fourth book as the author hadn’t been able to find a way to finish it in three books.
Brisingir wasn’t a bad book, no better or worse than any number of fantasy books on the market, but it did very little to advance the overall plot of the series. There were a few pieces of information given out that would prove significant, but for the most part it was taken up with adventures which did little or nothing to advance the plot. So when it was announced that book four, Inheritance, published by Random House Canada on November 8 2011, was going to be over 800 pages long, I seriously wondered what Paolini was going to fill that number of pages with. Sure there were a number of questions that still remained to be answered, not least of which were how was the hero going to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe, but even half those pages should have been sufficient to bring the series to a conclusion.
The most pressing of those questions was how the hero of the series, Eragon, and his dragon Saphira, were going to overcome the evil king Galbatorix who ruled Alagaesia with an iron fist. Eragon had been the first new dragon rider since Galbatorix had killed the rest of them, along with their dragons, when he rose to power. Everything we’ve seen in the series to date has made the success of the young rider look like a long shot at best. Even with the four races of people — elves, humans, dwarves and Urgal (a race of warriors with large ram’s horns growing out of their heads) — banded together to form an army of resistance known as the Varden, the forces of the king seem overwhelming. Not only are his armies equal to, if not larger, than those of the Varden, his powers of magic are so strong that even if Eragon and every other magic user in the kingdom linked their powers they wouldn’t be able to overcome him through force. Galbatorix is so strong he was able to force Eragon’s half-brother Murtagh, and his dragon Thorn, to swear oaths of allegiance to him against their wills; oaths that if broken would destroy them.
The only clue Eragon has to a possible solution to the problem of how to overcome Galbatorix is the second part of a cryptic piece of advice given him soon after he became a dragon rider: “When all seems lost and your power insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls”. Unfortunately nobody he’s talked to, not even the werecat who gave him the advice, have any idea where either of them are located. When the leader of the Varden, Nasuada, is captured in a daring midnight raid by Murtagh and Thorn, the chances of their success have never seemed slimmer. Their armies may have captured some of the cities controlled by Galbatorix, but they are running out of supplies and have to figure out how to defeat him quickly.
From that summation of events the final book had the potential for at least some nail biting adventure. However, instead of focusing on the matter at hand, having Eragon search out the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls and then confronting Galbatorix, Paolini clutters up the book with page upon page of battles that could just as easily taken place off stage. While some people might find the battle scenes and side adventures exciting, overall they merely slow the story down and needlessly detract from the through line of the series. In fact by wasting so much time on insignificant details along the way, the final confrontation with Galbatorix when it comes feels rushed. Even worse, discovering the location of the Rock of Kuthian and the Vault of Souls feels incredibly contrived. It’s almost like the author used the peripheral details hoping to distract us from the weaknesses of his resolution for the main plot.
Even more difficult to understand is how the last hundred or so pages of the book are spent in a very awkward attempt to tie up all the lose ends he had created throughout the series. While questions like who should rule Alagaesia after Galbatorix could only be answered once he was defeated, there should have been a way of resolving other threads more organically. Instead it feels like Paolini has remembered at the last moment he’s left questions unanswered and tacked on the answers in order to satisfy fan forums.The most truthful part of his conclusion was the ambiguous way in which he dealt with some of the issues facing his characters. This at least fit in with the idea they, and the world they lived in, were facing with a new beginning and an uncertain future.
The first two books of the Inheritance Cycle showed great promise. Paolini had created a world complete with an intricate history and a variety of different races. However, somewhere along the way he lost his focus, and the details took on a life of their own until they overshadowed the main plot of the story. As a result the final book in the series, Inheritance, feels contrived and rather forced as the author tried to cram in answers to all the questions he had raised in the earlier books. While I’m sure die hard fans will find much to enjoy, it could have been much better.