Christopher Paolini exploded onto the young adult fantasy scene with his first book, “Eragon,” at the age of seventeen. He gained a good deal of fame for publishing a best-selling book so young, and the story was even made into a (terrible) movie. (No, really. It’s awful. If you haven’t seen it, spare yourself the pain.) Books two (”Eldest”) and three (“Brisingr”) were also best-sellers, and November marked the release of the fourth and final book in the series (“Inheritance”).
The Inheritance Cycle gets a lot of flak in the fantasy / scifi community for being derivative. I’ve heard it referred to as “Star Wars in Middle-earth,” and honestly, the analogy is pretty accurate. In “Eragon,” farm-boy and titular character Eragon finds a dragon egg in the forest. It hatches for him, and boy and dragon are guided by a wise old man who teaches Eragon magic in his quest to find and destroy the evil usurper Galbatorix, who has annihilated the ancient order of the dragon-riders and taken the reins of leadership in a tyrannical grasp. The parallels between this story and any other “farm-boy discovers magical powers and goes on to save the world” story are clear to anyone who’s read a few fantasy novels, but I feel that most of the series’ detractors are forgetting that the series is young adult fiction.
The series is aimed at pre-teens, and I think that it succeeds quite well in that regard. Tropes which adult readers of fantasy are familiar with aren’t as apparent to younger readers, and I believe that they’ll be swept up in the story of young Eragon and his quest. His growth from a naïve and head-strong boy into a powerful and yet flawed young man are sure to strike chords in the minds of the younger readers the books are marketed for. His struggles with family, friendship, loyalty and his own sense of superiority are realistically well-portrayed, and the story deals well with his journey into adulthood. The driving force of the series is Eragon’s struggle to determine who he really is, a theme most young people examine at least once in their lives.
This said, “The Inheritance Cycle” isn’t as good as other young adult novels (such as the Harry Potter series) at pleasing readers both young and old. If you’re a fantasy aficionado, you’ll probably be annoyed at Paolini’s elves and dwarves, which are drawn straight from Tolkien with a few cursory unique elements. The plot parallels to Star Wars: A New Hope are blaringly obvious from the get-go and he only begins to break out of that plot structure in book three. Book four presents a host of other problems, including some unmistakable deus ex machina, choppy story-telling, and a dénouement which stretches for an unbelievable hundred and fifty pages.
Yes, you read that right. After the climax, you have to read A HUNDRED AND FIFTY PAGES in which the author ties up unresolved plot threads. It felt as if Paolini just couldn’t let go of this world he’d created, and felt the need to drag the reader along with him as he painstakingly examined the aftereffects of the events of the climax and how they affected each and every major character in the series.
The climax itself was satisfying, if a tad unrealistic. Paolini laid the groundwork for a wonderfully unique world-changing event, then seemed to realize that said event would kill off a large number of his beloved characters, so he backed off and took the safer route. It left the event feeling far less dramatic as a result, and stole some of the thunder from what could have been an amazing jaw-dropping ending to the series.
Despite all its faults, The Inheritance Cycle does have some redeeming qualities that kept me reading up until the final page. The character Murtaugh made a fine contrast for Eragon’s optimism and noble ideals. I found his character to be far superior to any others, but then, I’ve always been a sucker for dark characters with tortured pasts. I am also admittedly a huge fan of dragons despite their over-abundance in the fantasy genre, and Paolini’s take on them, while somewhat generic, was fun to read. The story itself gets better as the series progresses, and while Paolini may falter from time to time (the first few chapters of book four felt rather clumsy in comparison to the rest of the book, for example), overall I found it engaging and enjoyable. I’m also rather happy that he didn’t follow the “hero lives happily ever after” formula. For someone who has adhered religiously to so many tropes, his breaking of this one (especially when so many fans were obviously rooting for it) was a nice surprise.
Overall, I’d recommend this book highly to young adult readers, and suggest that adult fantasy fans go into it with their expectations low, if they pick it up at all. Don’t read The Inheritance Cycle if you’re looking for new and unique magic systems, unforgettable characters or deep world-building, because you certainly won’t get them. I like to think of it as a gateway book… it’s a great introduction for younger readers into epic fantasy, and will hopefully whet their appetites for more.