As an adult reader, and somebody whose literary tastes have been known to include the likes of Joyce and other so called heavyweights, I occasionally wonder about my predilection for reading fantasy and other material that presents little or no intellectual challenge. Yet, when I think more on it I realize that although there might be a certain intellectual gap between the various books that I read, the authors I enjoy the most are the ones who are primarily storytellers. It doesn't matter whether it's Joyce or Rowling, as they are both concerned with recounting the events that have impacted on their characters, and how those events bring change into their characters' lives.
I'm sure I've scandalized quite a few folk by likening Leopold Bloom to Harry Potter, but I read for enjoyment, not for prestige or any other sort of intellectual bedpost notching. So while some may think Ulysses and Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone are worlds apart, as far as I'm concerned they are both well-told stories that bring me great pleasure to read. Certainly the authors have such vastly different styles that there can be almost no comparison between the two, but in the end they both have created a series of characters whose stories they are intent upon telling.
Whenever I find a story that I've not read before that gives me as much pleasure as the ones mentioned above, I feel like I've been given a great gift. Most recently that gift came in the form of an omnibus edition of The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest by Christopher Paolini and published by Random House Canada. This is another occasion of me coming late to the feast, as I know the first two books have been available for a while now, and although I'd seen their titles in the book stores for a while, and had toyed with picking up a copy, I confess it took watching the movie adaptation of the first book Eragon to get me interested enough to read the series.
For those of you like me who are playing catch-up on the series, the third and final book Brisinger was published at the end of September, this omnibus edition containing the first two books being a convenient and inexpensive way to get up to speed. It not only contains the complete texts of both books, but as a bonus feature (not just in DVDs anymore) they've thrown in copies of Paolini's original hand-written manuscripts – making you once again grateful for the marvels of typesetting, as outside of a doctor's I swear that authors have the worst handwriting I've ever seen.
In Eragon we meet the title character, a farm boy of fifteen, around whom the action of the whole series will be focused. While hunting in a mysterious mountain ridge near his village known as the Spine, his quarry is disturbed by a sudden explosion, and although he misses his shot at a deer, he is left with a mysterious blue stone. On the off chance that he may be able to barter the stone for money or food he returns home with it, only to discover the treasure it contains is far more dangerous or valuable than he could have ever imagined. For the blue stone is a dragon egg, one of three that remain from the glory days of when dragons and their riders led the land of Alagaesia and peace and prosperity reigned. But those days are long gone, and an evil king, Galbatorix, now rules with an iron fist.
Once a dragon rider himself, Galbatorix betrayed his comrades and with the aid of followers equally corrupt destroyed the rest of the dragon riders and the dragons. He preserved three eggs in the hopes that he could induce them to hatch for people of his choice so that he could raise a new breed of dragon riders, ones who would enforce his will upon the people of Alagaesia and allow him to expand his empire beyond its current borders. However, those who resist him managed to steal one of the eggs and have succeeded in killing all of his former underlings.
Dragons will only hatch when the egg senses the one whom they are destined for is nearby, so for years the resistance has passed the egg between three races: human, elf, and dwarf, in an attempt to find a rider among them. It's when the egg is being transported from one group to another and the courier intercepted by the king's forces that it was sent off to land at Eragon's feet. It was no accident that it ended up near his village, though, because one of the chief architects of its theft had gone into hiding there years ago, and in her desperation the courier had tried to send it to him but had fallen short.
Brom, whom the village has always regarded as nothing more than a storyteller, turns out to have been not only a former rider, but the one who managed to steal the egg from Galbatorix. When Eragon's home is attacked by evil minions of the king known as Ra'zac, and his uncle slain, it's Brom who leads Eragon and his dragon, Saphira, into the wilderness in pursuit of the evildoers in the hopes of exacting vengeance on them. It's also Brom who begins to train Eragon in the intricacies of becoming a dragon rider. Not only does this involve learning how to fight with a sword, but how to use magic as well.
Unfortunately, the farther they travel, the more they realize how desperate the situation in Alagesia has become. Not only has Galbatorix allied himself with the Ra'zac, but he's also begun to raise armies of Urgals, fearsome bestial creatures, who are terrorizing the population. Eragon is one harrowing adventure after another, filled with unexpected joys and sorrows, as Eragon and Brom chase across the breadth of the country. In spite of all the action taking place, and all the information that needs to be imparted, Christopher Paolini not only plots a sure course that prevents the reader from becoming overwhelmed by information, he knows when to slow the pace of events so that we have time to get to know our characters.
Eragon may not age physically during the course of the first book, but he grows in other ways. We watch as he struggles to understand what it means to be a dragon rider, exalt in his triumphs, and mourn the defeats that inevitably occur along the way. As the connection between him and Saphira grows stronger we watch as they both learn from each other, and see how Eragon grows to realize what it means to truly be responsible for another being. While new characters are introduced throughout the book — such as Arya the elf-courier who they rescue from the clutches of an evil sorcerer known as a Shade, and the mysterious Murtagh — they enter in such a manner that they don't interfere with the flow of the narrative.
Desperation forces many of Eragon's decisions near the end of the first book, but he has matured sufficiently by then to marshal his resources and see him and his new friends through to the relative safety offered by the stronghold of the Varden – the name given to those who oppose the rule of Galbatorix. It's here that he and Saphira prove themselves in battle for the first time as an army of Urgals led by the Shade who had imprisoned Arya manages to penetrate the stronghold. Although Eragon manages to defeat the Shade, and the Varden repulse the invasion, neither escape uninjured.
As the curtain falls on Act One of the series, Paolini lets us know that Eragon's voyage has only just begun, and he and Saphira have leagues yet to travel before they are able to fulfill their promise. The battle against the king has only started, and they've barely survived a small taste of the power that can be brought to bear against them. For what were to happen if Galbatorix himself were to enter the fray – the oldest and most powerful of dragon riders? Will Eragon and Saphira have time to complete their training under the tutelage of the elves before they are needed to fight yet another battle against the king's soldiers, and will even the elves be able to prepare them sufficiently for the battles to come?
Eragon is a wonderful opening chapter to what promises to be a spellbinding trilogy. Not only has Christopher Paolini showed that he can write action and adventure, but he has the required empathy to create characters, both human and non, that are easy for a reader to identify with. Even more amazing is that the world these beings populate is so well envisioned that it doesn't take very much to accept its existence. You will believe that man can fly dragons.
To be continued in Part Two of this review.