Sunday, 24 December 2006

Eragon

Well, Eragon is certainly hyped up in media at the moment, and I will confess I read the book in anticipation of the movie coming out. My theory was that it would be good aeroplane reading, being targeted at young adults . . . With about 30 pages of the book to go, I saw the movie yesterday, and then finished the book last night. Here are my thoughts. [warning: spoilers]


In principle, the story of Eragon is a relatively simple ‘hero’s journey’: teenager (Eragon) finds mysterious rock which turns out to be a dragon egg; dragon (Saphira) chooses him to be her rider which brings much danger (not to mention aura and magic); mysterious storyteller in village (Brom) seems to know a lot about dragons and helps Eragon escape the forces of the evil ex-dragon rider king who wants Eragon (and his dragon) to serve him; after a series of adventures (including the rescue of a beautiful elf) Eragon and Saphira end up in the mountain stronghold of a group of rebels plotting to overthrow the evil king; battle ensues and they win, but the victory is only a minor one, leaving room for the sequel (called Eldest).


There’s nothing really new in all that, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been a really charming book, filled with great characters and high drama etc. In truth, the author, Christopher Paolini (who was around 17 when he wrote this book), does create some interesting characters --- most notably the mysterious werecat, Solembum, who communicates with Eragon through mind speech, and I also rather liked the renegade, Murtagh, who pops up out of nowhere in the middle of the book and becomes Eragon’s travel companion, and is later revealed as the prodigal son of the king’s former right hand man (now deceased).


The book contains most of the elements of traditional fantasy: young ‘farm boy’ who becomes mighty with both sword and magic, wise companion who is revealed as a former dragon rider (I saw that coming a mile off), elves, dwarves, evil king, a long journey/quest on horseback. But again, that’s not necessarily bad, if done well.


If I had disliked this book, I wouldn’t have finished it, but I have to say it let me down. There were two main problems for me: the structure and pace, and the writing. Both of these can probably be attributed to the author’s age. To me it read like it was written by a 17-year old --- albeit a very talented one. Words aside (and I won’t go on about repetitive sentence structure and too many passive constructions), the ancillary detail of action, thought, dialogue etc seemed young. No doubt this is also authentic, and is part of what makes this novel so appealing to young readers.


Aside from that, the story was paced too slow. To start with, the egg doesn’t hatch for almost 40 pages, and then Eragon manages to hide his growing dragon from everybody for weeks. Many of the villagers and the storylines there are superfluous to the ultimate story. It just takes so long to get going. Once Eragon finally does leave his home village, it is with the intention of pursuing his uncle’s murderers. I can only assume Brom aids him in this as an excuse to spend time training Eragon in the arts of sword and magic. They then spend another 150 pages fluffing about, including a side journey to a coastal town seeking shipping records for some oil the assassins used (such a stupid idea --- although this is where they meet Solembum the werecat, and Angela the herbalist, who play a role later in the story).


Somewhere in the middle of the novel, there’s a flurry of excitement as the assassins start chasing them; Murtagh appears and saves Eragon, but Brom is killed. But then, it all slows down again as they head off in completely the opposite direction to a town in the north in search of someone who can tell them where the rebels are hidden. There, they manage to rescue the elf, Arya, who spends most of the rest of the book unconscious, as they now head south again to find the rebels. (It’s like a tour of all towns on the map in random order.) There’s a big chase as they lead the enemy forces right to the gates of the ‘hidden’ rebel stronghold, followed by a really long lull as Eragon explores the hidden city, visits the library, is tested for his abilities etc. Just as the story is supposed to building towards its climax! The final battle itself has a relatively short build-up and is over in a flash.


(One other little gripe: the author uses Saphira to impart knowledge ‘that Brom told her in secret’ to propel the plot in a few places.)


In all, I do admire Christopher Paolini for this book, though. My knowing his age might have made me more sensitive to many of its faults, but I believe it made me more forgiving as well. I expect that his books will improve rapidly, and I suspect that in time I will also read Eldest. [Although, having just now read some of the reviews on Amazon, I may not!]


Given all this, I was interested to see the movie of Eragon, since I anticipated it would have tightened up the plot considerably. It did, but it was by no means a brilliant adaptation (although I won’t go so far as to slam it to the extent of the reviewers on imdb.com!). Many of the changes were made to increase the tension (since the novel had very little) and weed out the superfluous story threads (applauded by me), but it went OTT on the stereotypical depiction of the evil king (played by John Malkovich) and his chief henchman, the shade, Durza (Robert Carlyle). In addition (and somewhat ironically) the movie seemed to travel too quickly! I think this was because it didn’t impart a good sense of time passing for the traveling scenes (although the scenery was beautiful), and the viewer had little sense of the distances being traveled. It could have spent more time setting up backstory and characters --- particularly Murtagh, who appears near the end with very little explanation and seems in the context of the movie completely superfluous. Solembum was dropped all together L and Angela reduced to a chance encounter (she tells Eragon’s fortune, and this must have been deemed important by the scriptwriter). The major climax lacks the customary ‘calm before the storm’ and therefore lacks the impact it should have had. The whole movie as a result ends up feeling hollow and trite. (Despite my criticisms of the book’s pacing, it certainly doesn’t lack in texture.) I did rather like Jeremy Irons as Brom and Sienna Guillory as Arya. Others have praised Rachel Weisz’s voicing of Saphira, but I found her accent irritating.


One final comment before I end my rant! One of the aspects about Eragon that I like most is the premise of how dragon eggs hatch. The eggs can last for centuries unhatched, the dragon inside waiting for the person it wants to be its rider. In the world of Eragon, the dragon riders and their dragons are all gone, the king having killed them all, and there are only three eggs remaining. Saphira’s egg was stolen many years ago from the king’s possession, and the elves and rebels have been guarding it, waiting for it to hatch. Arya was trying to send it using magic to Brom, when Eragon found it. The last two eggs remain in the king’s possession, leaving the door open very nicely . . .

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