See also the review of Part One
When an athlete has a remarkable first year in their sport and then fails to live up to the expectations generated by his accomplishments in his second year they call it the sophomore jinx. While there's equivalent for talking about works of fiction there are plenty of examples of an author scoring a success with their first novel only to stumble badly with their second. An even stranger phenomenon is what I've taken to calling the curse of the second book.
It seems to be something that is reserved for trilogies, especially those in the fantasy genre, and is something that I first became aware of when reading Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The first time I read the books, it was The Two Towers, the second book in the trilogy, that almost prevented me from finishing series. While the battle scenes are of interesting enough, and the Ents are fascinating, the trek through Mordor with Frodo, Sam, and Gollum was tedious. However, it's not just Tolkien, I've seen the same thing occur in other trilogies, where the second book is the weakest of the series.
Unlike an opening book it lacks the excitement inherent with starting something new. Nor is there a rousing finish to look forward to like there is in the concluding book. When I was an actor I quickly learned that while it was very easy to recreate either emotional highs or lows, mid ranges were another matter all together. How could you make yourself interesting to your audience while portraying something somewhere in the middle? That's much the same conundrum that the writer of a trilogy faces when he or she is needing to keep their audiences attention riveted without the emotional peaks that are built into a beginning or an end.
Perhaps it worked in Christopher Paolini's favour that I read the second book of his trilogy as part of an omnibus edition, The Inheritance Cycle: Eragon & Eldest, containing it and the first book. Yet I'm inclined to think that even if I had read Eragon (the first book) and Eldest (the second) as separate editions it wouldn't have mattered. Eldest is not only as good a book as its predecessor, but in some ways I think it may even be better. For not only is Paolini able to sustain the interest in the story and the characters he had begun in his opening chapter, he managed to draw me deeper into the story.
Pace is a very key element to sustaining a reader's interest, and when an author establishes the type of high speed tempo that Paolini did in Eragon, if he slows it down in the second book he stands a very good chance of losing his readership. Yet the problem Paolini faced was that he was committed to sending his lead characters, Eragon the dragon rider, and the dragon Saphira off to be educated among the elves. I'm sorry, but no matter how you dress it up, school is school, and if the majority of Eldest had been spent on going to lessons with Eragon and Saphira, the book would have died a slow death.
Instead, Paolini took a very big chance and began a new story line to run alongside the ones all ready established. Although he begins Eldest by picking up the story where Eragon concluded and adding some new wrinkles to the plot line, after the opening few chapters the scene changes completely. We travel back to the village of Carvahall, from which Eragon had fled in his search for vengeance against those who killed his uncle. It's his cousin Roran who becomes the focus of our attention, first as he copes with the knowledge that his father is dead and his farm destroyed and somehow his beloved younger cousin is responsible, then as the repercussions of Eragon's actions continue to grow.
For Roran has little time to build up resentment against Eragon, because it's not long before the Empire, in the form of a troop of 30 soldiers led by two of the evil Ra'zac, comes for him. Initially he is able to stay hidden in the woods surrounding the town, but when it becomes obvious that the soldiers and the Ra'zac have no intention of leaving without him things reach a head. The townspeople decide to actively resist the soldiers, and do surprisingly well. Although they suffer casualties of their own, they manage to kill off over half the soldiers and prevent them from taking Roran or inflicting too much damage on their village.
Unfortunately they are betrayed by one of their own, and a squad of soldiers and the Ra'zac attempt to take Roran from where he is staying. Although he successfully avoids capture, his betrothed, Katrina, isn't so lucky and is spirited away by the Ra'zac on their flying steeds. Like his cousin before him he vows that he won't rest until he tracks the Ra'zac to their den and destroys them, and hopefully rescue Katrina in the process. In the meantime the villagers have to deal with the eventuality that the King won't allow them to get away with defying him. Seized by a messianic zeal, Roran is able to convince them that their only hope is to pack up, leave, and make the dangerous trek across land and sea to the country where the Varden – those who are fighting the king – have their base and seek shelter with them.
With the fate of his home village providing the action to stir our blood, the more static adventures of Eragon while he is undergoing his next level of training to be a dragon rider with the elves becomes more interesting through the contrast they provide. It's here that Paolini shows his subtlety as a writer in the ways in which he develops the characters of both Eragon and Saphira. For they are each assigned a teacher by the elves, who works with them not only on their martial skills but also hones them intellectually and emotionally. For if Eragon hopes to succeed in his attempt to overthrow the evil King Galbatorix he will have to not only become far more proficient physically, but he will need to somehow gain the strength of self that usually only comes through years of experience in a short while.
While Roran is leading his people across the empire to what they hope to be the relative safety of joining the Varden, and Eragon and Saphira are being honed as a weapon, Galbatorix has not been idle either. Using magic to shield their movements from the Varden's spies, he has gradually gathered together an army of close to one hundred thousand men, far more than the Varden can hope to field. The only hope the Varden have in defeating an army of that size is if their allies the dwarves can reach them in time, and if Eragon and Saphira have come into sufficient strength to even up the odds.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Christopher Paolini has managed to avoid the second book lag that happens so often in fantasy trilogies by taking chances. Adding a new plot line, and throwing in new twists to the all ready existing plot, could have easily backfired on him by making the story too confusing. However he has the wisdom and the confidence take his time with each new element so that we are able to absorb the information properly. Not only does this allow us the opportunity to fully appreciate the new characters and circumstances, but we also grow closer to those we had met before.
Eldest draws us deeper into the world that Christopher Paolini has created with his trilogy The Inheritance Cycle. While action and adventure play a role in keeping our interest in the story piqued, he is a gifted enough writer that the moments spent by characters in introspection are every bit as enticing as those in a flurry of activity. He also continues to display a fine eye for detail, which allows him to bring the wonders of the elf homeland in all its splendour, the bleakness of the villagers' exodus, and the confusion of battle to life in equal measure.
First Eragon, and now Eldest; one can only wonder at what marvels he has in store for us in part three – Brisinger.