What you almost always hear first about Eragon is “wow, it was written by a 17-yr-old.” And Christopher Paolini is fully deserving of the respect and admiration he gets — it is indeed an impressive book for a 17-year-old to have written. What he probably should not have gotten was a publishing contract, since while it is impressive for a 17-yr-old, it is less than impressive for a published work of fiction.
If an adult had written and published this, I would have been disgusted (as I was with The Sword of Shannara) with the clear calculation that had gone into the work: “ok, I’ll take a lot of Tolkien, a lot of McCaffery, a good amount of Le Guin, some Dragonlance, some Star Wars, etc. It will be a can’t miss book.” Since it’s the product not of an adult but of a teenager, it comes across much more positively — as a work of fiction by someone who has read lots and absorbed lots of fantasy and simply didn’t have the experience (or the good editor) to take out all of his favorite parts of other works. How can I dislike or be too critical of someone who so obviously loved some of my own favorite authors — loved them so much that they simply took over his book through, I’m guessing, no fault of his own.
And that in a nutshell is the problem with Eragon. The story is clichéd, formulaic, and barely passable, as are the characters, and the language is simply what you would expect from a somewhat precocious teen fan of adult fantasy. If you have any experience in the field of fantasy at all, reading Eragon will feel like a visit to Las Vegas (though not so tacky) — sure you can see New York and Paris and Italy there, but they are mere shadows of the real thing. So McCaffery’s telepathic link between dragon and rider is here, but not the powerful emotionality of her (especially earlier) works. Le Guin’s idea of one true name and one true language forming the backbone of magic is here, but not her masterful sense of order and balance and restraint, not to mention the sparse beauty of her language. And of course, the graceful, bow-carrying elves, the gruff and secretive mentor with magical powers, the withdrawn dwarves, etc. all show up in their correct place and time. As a high school English teacher, the story and characters are exactly what I would expect to see if I picked up one of my fantasy fan’s personal notebooks off of their desks and began reading. Even the people and place names are far too imitative (as opposed to inspired). To be perfectly honest, it was so much like my students’ writings that I had to struggle to continue past the first ten pages.
Does that mean nobody could enjoy this book? If you have read Tolkien, McCaffery, Le Guin, Jordan, Lewis, Pullman, Donaldson, etc., then I’d strongly suggest skipping Eragon. You’ll not only be heavily disappointed by the weaknesses in plot, character development, and language, but you’ll probably be annoyed at how often your favorite authors appear in borrowed and poorer clothing. If you have little experience in fantasy, and so won’t be bothered by the obviously derivative nature of this book, you’ll probably enjoy it. But there are far better works to begin a lifetime of fantasy reading with and even if you start with Eragon, I hope you quickly move onto them, beginning with the above list and adding for younger readers authors such as Lloyd Alexander, E. Nesbit, Robin McKinley, and many, many others. I’d like to see what this young author comes up with in another five-ten years, but for now he’s still retelling the stories he liked himself, rather than writing down his own.
Inheritance — (2001-2011) Young adult. Publisher: When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands.