By Grace Gardener
I have no problem with long books. 230,000 words? Sure thing, sign me up! Some stories take longer to tell than others. However, it seems that authors in the fantasy genre have forgotten that short books are okay too. More and more you see books that get extended into trilogies, or trilogies that get another three books because the author hasn’t done enough plotting. That last thing is exactly what happened to Eragon. Originally intended to have three, it now counts five books, each of which has at least 1000 pages. And that, dear reader, is why it took so long for me to write this review.
In the first book, Eragon became a Rider and killed the shade Durza. Now, he needs to train for his responsibilities. He travels to the elves, where he meets “the cripple who is whole”, Oromis, who proceeds to train him in using magic. While there, both Eragon’s shoulder wound from book 1 and his crush on Arya – also from book 1 – rise to uncomfortable heights. This all brews together for a while until the danger over at the Varden becomes too great and Eragon has to rush back to save the day in a large battle agaisnt Galbatorix’ forces. In the meantime, Roran, Eragon’s brother, has returned to the village of Carvahall. The Ra’zak are still hanging around, and in the end Carvahall is being threatened so badly that Roran decides to sneak out with all of the villagers and try to find shelter.
Paolini’s prose is rather flowery. I think it’s good that he wants to describe the surroundings, but he does it quite a bit too often for my taste. Once a certain line is crossed, description becomes distracting. Quite a few times, I found myself skimming over the description so we could get back to the more exciting parts. Another habit that got annoying was his use of similes. Paolini seems to describe everything by comparing it to something else – and sometimes it doesn’t even help the reader visualise it. How would I know what ice creeping over granite looks like? Paolini also uses quite a few long words that don’t serve any purpose. Yes, it’s a good idea to use your thesaurus, but you have to keep in mind that not everybody will know what “sussation” and “corpuscle” mean. Furthermore, Paolini sometimes describes things that are really not that interesting: ‘No hair grew upon his chest or legs, not even around his groin.’ ….Well then. There is a lot more silliness like this: during a stretching exercise, somebody touches his forehead to his toes, which is anatomically impossible; Arya almost keeps apace with a flying dragon while running; Arya wears leather clothes even though she’s a vegan; and there are creatures called Shhrg… Yeah, try pronouncing that. A lot of the little details Paolini tells us aren’t relevant and only made me more confused about how the world works.
On the moral side of things, Eldest has a very utilitarian worldview. This worldview basically says that anything that works is the right thing to do. That’s why Roran continually hurts others as long as it helps fulfil his noble goal. One good example is how he manages to get his entire village over some body of water: he needs barges, but can’t pay the full fee. He also can’t tell the owner, Clovis, that he’s going to transport people or the man will back out. So he decides to only pay the up-front price and steal the boat when they arrive at their destination to avoid paying the full price. When the boat’s owner sees that Roran is going to transport an entire village, and not animals, he understandably objects, explaining he could get into huge trouble. Roran, that excellent model of good conduct, tells Clovis he will use these barges no matter what – because, remember, his goal is good, so anything that gets him closer to it is automatically also good – and even threatens to kill him, although apparently he wasn’t actually going to do it, you guys. Throughout, the book tries to paint Clovis as the untrustworthy, treacherous one, even though it’s Roran who deceived him.
Another drawback of utilitarianism is that it judges people’s worth based on their usefulness. Once again, Roran displays his wonderful love for people by wishing that an old man had died during the journey so he wouldn’t have to deal with him during the boat ride. The man clearly has some problems up in his attick. I’ll leave it up to you decide whether that’s a good reason to wish he were dead. A more jarring example is Elva. This poor girl has been accidentally cursed by Eragon to be a shield for harm: she can feel others’ pain and needs to help them or she’ll suffer for it. When Nasuada meets her for the first time, Elva knows exactly what to say to comfort her, and Nasuada ‘loathed her for it’. When she starts to feel sympathy for the child, it’s apparantly ‘against her judgment’. How is any of this Elva’s fault? Why is she being judged for a stupid mistake Eragon made? Nasuada sees Elva as ‘a potent weapon if she were applied correctly’ and as ‘a blight on [her] honor’. I would like to point out that Elva is a literal baby who has had to grow up way too quickly in order to suffer in other people’s place. Once again, the book only sees her usefulness, not her humanity. Angela is even worse: she ‘relishes’ to study Elva. Not only that, but while discussing the girl’s future, she gets sidetracked by the word quagmire: ‘lovely word, quagmire’. Angela, can you not be quirky while talking about a cursed child’s future?
Besides all of the above, there are other ethical issues that I’m not going to spend much time on: revenge is once again glorified; people don’t believe in the meaning of life, and say that if there is one, it’s just to help people and do things; the worldview is very fatalistic: the book mentions various times that there is no justice in the world; and Oromis claims that using logic is way better than being wise, thus automatically trusting that logic will always bring you to the right answer. The Varden are refugee living in Surda, then threaten the Surdanese with thievery and other bad behaviour and steal an entire market from them. A man’s chickens get stolen by somebody else, the thief doesn’t have to pay the full price back and is actually promoted to a better job with full rations to avoid him stealing. Lastly, the Elves don’t practice marriage, instead just picking a mate for a certain time, which has been shown to be very unhealthy for people. That might be different for Elves, but to promote it in a teenagers’ series seems unwise.
The Elves probably deserve a paragraph of their own. In fantasy like this, Elves are usually considered very beautiful and serene. Paolini takes this up another notch by making them the perfect people: he idolizes them. This is problematic for several reasons: firstly, when Eragon is miraculously healed, he is also turned into an elf-like person without his consent. He later states he is indeed perfectly fine with it. After all, what does consent matter if what is happening to you is good? This elf superiority also elevates the elves’ veganistic and atheistic beliefs above all other beliefs in the universe. There are two scenes that are clearly just a badly hidden podium for Paolini himself to explain exactly why there is no god. In fact, the elves know a lot more about science than you’d expect in a medieval world, and it’s suspiciously useful for their arguments against any deities. Happy indoctrination, kids! Lastly, the elves themselves also believe they are better than everyone else: they are more scientifically developed, better at magic and stronger physically. Why shouldn’t they have a large head? When Eragon tells Arya he’s worried for her safety, she reminds him that she isn’t ‘one of your helpless [human] females’. As a human female, I am officially insulted.
The magic system is very fascinating: it revolves around an ancient language, but that language isn’t the thing that drives the magic; instead, it harnesses it. I must say that, as much as I like the premise of the system, I am confused as to how it really works: one the one hand the language harnesses the language, but you can perform magic without it. It’s your intention that eventually decides the spell, but Eragon manages to turn a blessing into a curse by using the wrong inflection. You need to understand what you’re saying, but Eragon also heals someone with a spell in which he doesn’t understand any of the individual words and only know what the spell is supposed to do.
Both Eragon and Roran seem rather overpowered: they are great at swordfighting, planning, leading, and Eragon even turns into an elf, which makes him absolutely beautiful. In the beginning, Eragon still has his old wound, which gives him a flaw, but after he learns to “conquer the instincts of his flesh” and gets turned into an elf in a very weird ceremony that includes naked dancing girls, the wound has disappeared, leaving him with no flaws. This once again fits in very well with the worldview that only those who are useful in the very specific way everyone else wants them to be should feel good about themselves. Not only that, but before the old leader of the Varden dies, he charges Eragon with responsibility over the whole Varden, after which everybody takes this 15-year old boy seriously enough to include him in their council meetings. Eragon and Saphira themselves fully go along with this, even mistrusting all of the Varden’s leaders for no good reason. They immediately assume they’re corrupt and out to get power. Strangely, Eragon first describes a man as wolf, then later says he strikes him as honourable. These leaders never really come up after this, so why make such a big deal of their conniving? It seems like just another way to show how much better Eragon is than everyone around him.
All of that being said, there is some good to be said for Eldest. The final battle still felt high-stakes, even with Eragon being so powerful. It still seemed plausible that he might get hurt, which is always necessary for an action scene to be interesting. There was a plot twist during that battle that I probably should have seen coming, but didn’t. I’ll chalk that up to my youth and naivete. I enjoyed a lot of the magic gimmicks and some of the learning sessions. But that’s also about it.
So yeah, Eldest is a depressing book. It tells me that I am only worth something if I am useful; it tells me there is no God and that there is no hope for the world; and if someone wrongs you all you can do is take revenge on them. I will not be finishing this series. Thankfully, there isn’t exactly a shortage on fantasy literature. On to the next try!