Eragon 50-51: Oh, The Angst

I’ve recently finished reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second novel in The Dresden Files. It was a fun read, with likable protagonists and lots of action. There was one thing that drove me crazy about it, though: every chapter had to end on a cliffhanger. I understand why authors do this, and I’ve done it in my own writing, but when it happens every chapter, it gets a little tiring, not to mention formulaic. You can predict how each chapter is going to go: Harry is in trouble, gets himself out of trouble, winds up in worse trouble. Repeat as necessary.

Again, I understand the benefits of doing this, but it begins to lose impact the more it happens. This is why when a chapter ends with Eragon passing out and getting himself captured for the twelfth time, I really don’t care.

Of course, this may be because I don’t care about the character himself, because he’s dumb.

Murtagh revealing that he’s the son of Morzan is actually a pretty good cliffhanger, though. We’re left waiting for the emotional fallout, rather than waiting to see if Eragon gets rescued again. (Spoiler: he does. He always does.) But this new inforation is the real obstacle to their friendship. Or, rather, the friendship we’re told they have, because whenever we see them talking, they’re usually arguing.

As expected, there’s a lot of a shock and sudden distrust. Saphira and Eragon are immediately defensive and wary. Saphira doesn’t even want to leave Eragon’s side, afraid that Murtagh will attack him. Eragon doesn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, which I might yell at him about, except that it makes sense for his character. At this point, he’s still only sixteen, and he’s never been a font of wisdom. Even Saphira, who I’ve critiqued for maybe being just a little too wise, is concerned. She’s still a young dragon, and she’s finally acting her age, too. That, and she has plenty of reason to hate the son of Morzan.

Fortunately, Saphira does manage to have some common sense and points out that if Murtagh really wanted to hurt Eragon, he would have done so already. Murtagh’s parentage is a rather distressing subject for him, and has said more than once that he never asked to be born. Eragon treats Murtagh rather coldly, even after Saphira talks sense into him. Instead of coming across as cautious, or savvy, it makes Eragon look more like a jerk than ever.

But that’s only for a few pages. Soon enough, the army of Urgals are on top of them. The trio only has a few more hours to get Arya the antidote she needs, so the pressure is on. It’s actually a pretty exciting chapter, especially when Saphira starts fighting the Urgals. She can’t breathe fire yet, but her ferocity is really impressive, even when it seems they’re hopelessly outnumbered.

There was also a scene that I related to a little too well. Eragon believes that he’s found the entrance to the Varden, but the door won’t open. He quickly realizes he’s on the wrong side of the lake. I might make fun of this, except I have no sense of direction. At all. This is totally something I would do.

Near the end of the chapter, Eragon is knocked into the river, and he, Murtagh,  Arya and Saphira are rescued by two members of the Varden. The scene is a little hard to understand and visualize, but it’s one of the rare cases where a confusing action scene actually works. It helps accentuate the chaos of the battle and the rescue, and the characters’ own confusion.

In the next chapter, Eragon, et. al. are taken inside the mountain to be questioned. It’s made clear early on that the Varden are dangerous, not just a rag-tag bunch of lovable scrappers. Throughout the series, there’s supposed to be some ambiguity as to whether the Varden are a group of rebels fighting for a just cause, or terrorists fighting the rightful ruler of the land. And while the leaders do morally questionable things (*cough* Elva *cough*), on the whole, you’re supposed to cheer for them, because they are soundly the good guys. This is one of the few times when we see that there is a darker side to them.

Eragon and Murtagh are questioned by a magician who is using magic to probe into their minds. Isn’t this…a little unnecessary? This guy is obviously high level, and “Zone of Truth” is only a second-level spell. Considering that you can make just about anything happen with the right words and phrasing in the Ancient Language, there had to be an easier way to form a spell that would have Eragon and Murtagh tell the truth, without breaking into their heads.

It backfires on him anyway, because Murtagh is able to block the man from entering his mind, and with Saphira’s help, Eragon is able to hide some of his memories as well. And while Eragon is a jerk on many levels, he at least doesn’t reveal the secret of Murtagh’s parentage. Good on you, Eragon.

As for the magician himself, who literally doesn’t have a name, could it be any more obvious that he’s evil?

‘Now, remove the defenses from around your mind [. . .] If you try to hide anything from me, I will take what I want by force…which would drive you mad. If you don’t submit, your companion will be killed.’ [. . .]

‘You’d better not harm him, Egraz Carn, else the king will have words for you.’

The bald man looked at him irritably, then faced Eragon with a small smile. ‘Only if he resists.’ [. . .]

He paid keen attention to so many things Eragon considered irrelevant, such as his mother, Selena, and seemed to linger on purpose so as to prolong the suffering.

So when he and his twin betray the Varden in the next book, absolutely no one is surprised. The Varden really needs to screen their mages better.

Even so, this chapter made me remember why I liked Murtagh so much. He’s a total badass. He refused to allow the mage to pick his brain, and shows impressive mental strength. He’s able to fight off the mage’s attack until another member of the Varden commands Magey to stop.

Most of the rest of the chapter is Murtagh giving Eragon–and the readers–his history. While I’m not a big fan of information dumps, it works here, because he’s also answering the questions the readers want to know. I’ll also give Paolini props for giving us the full story, instead of just handwaving plot holes with, “that’s a story for another time”.

It soon becomes clear that Murtagh’s parentage is a distressing subject for him. Morzan was an abusive alcoholic, and Murtagh’s mother was trapped in the relationship, doing his bidding.

Now this is one of the moments where I can see how I’ve changed. I’ve always been the girl going, “I’m a strong independent woman who don’t need no man!” and, in high school, really hated Murtagh’s mom. I thought she was so weak, staying with an abusive man for years, when she should have just walked away. Why didn’t she just up and leave?

Now I’m older, and I understand things better. I didn’t know then that leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly hard and frightening. Even the strongest person would have a difficult time with that. Even moreso when your abuser is capable of riding dragons and using magic and can kill you at fifty paces.

All that said, there are still some issues with this. Murtagh was raised in Galby’s palace, and only escaped a few months ago. Apart from Brom, he’s the most worldly character in this book. He’s the dark and brooding one, the one with survival skills. While he was trained to fight in the palace, so his swordsmanship makes sense, but the rest? I’m not buying it.

He only met Galby a few times, and tells Eragon about one of their meetings with some of the most awkward phrasing.

His words were entrancing, like a snake whispering gilded lies into my ears. A more convincing and frightening man I’ve never heard. [. . .] For a long time he was silent, but then he extended his hand and asked, “Will you, O son of my friend? serve me as I labor to bring about this paradise?” [. . .] the dream he had painted was too compelling, too seductive to ignore. Ardor for this mission filled me, and I fervently pledged myself to him.

Paolini, listen up. Use purple prose, or use beige prose, I don’t care. But stop switching between the two with no rhyme or reason, especially when Murtagh’s never spoken like that before.

He goes on to talk about how he came to realize that Galby was evil and insane, and that he decided to escape. Of course, he does this with some of the most awkwardly written dialogue in the book so far.

As soon as I was free of his presence, I and my faithful servant, Tornac, made ready for flight. We left that very night, but somehow Galbatorix anticipated my actions, for there were soldiers waiting for us outside the gates. Ah, my sword was bloody, flashing in the lantern glow.

Ugh.

Murtagh explains that he started following the Ra’zac in the hopes that they could lead him to a dragon, which begs the question: Why?

He wants to be free from Galby and his father’s shadow, so why does he follow the king’s most trusted servants around? He’s terrified his past will be revealed, but then why align himself with a Dragon Rider? I can only assume it’s so he has a powerful ally should he ever need one, but an easier and much better solution to his predicament is obvious. He could have just disappeared. His birth was a secret, and Algaesia’s a big place. Murtagh could have just changed his name, found a new city, and made a new life for himself.

For that matter, he doesn’t need to be so afraid of what the Varden will do to him if they find out about his heritage. He spent almost his entire life in Galby’s court, and once he shows them that he’s defected, he’d become a valuable resource to them.

I get it. Plot is propelled forward by characters making stupid choices. Murtagh is an important character throughout the series, and becomes Eragon’s foil by the end of the second book. You wouldn’t get that if he’d just disappeared, which would be the sensible option.

I guess what I’m not buying is the whole “Murtagh finds Eragon by following people he shouldn’t have been following if he’s so scared about getting caught” excuse.

I think this is another missed opportunity for character development. Murtagh’s out in the world on his own for the first time. He must be scared, uncertain, and confused. Probably angry, too, feeling betrayed by Galby. There’s an enormous amount of potential to create not just a great character arc, but a great character. Unfortunately, emotions come last while the plot is railroaded forward. Instead of an intriguing character, we’re left with a two-dimensional figure who has a few moments of greatness, but then falls as flat as the rest of the cast.

There is at least one way Murtagh outshines Eragon as a character.

Eragon is Algaesia’s biggest idiotball. Murtagh is its biggest drama queen.

Eragon 48-49: Dithering Without Empathy

I think this chapter was written so we would stop liking Murtagh. And to that effect, it backfired terribly. At least, for me. It starts when he gets called “emotionless”, which is supposed to read like Murtagh’s a cold, bad dude, but he and Eragon both have so little established personality, it doesn’t really distinguish them in any way.

But the real conflict comes when Eragon and Murtagh encounter a group of slavers, and I can’t figure out just why the slavers are here. They’re outside the Empire now, and we haven’t seen any evidence of human life beyond its borders, besides our heroes. Why are they searching out here, and who are they going to sell any captured slaves to? Or would they trek them back across the desert? This has to be the most inefficiently run business on the continent.

Eragon and Murtagh dispatch the slavers without much trouble, save one: Torkenbrand. He’s injured and unarmed, and Murtagh kills him before giving him a chance to surrender. No, it’s not exactly a heroic thing to do, but there weren’t a lot of options, either. Torkenbrand had already seen Arya, knew she was an elf, and even if he couldn’t capture them, he would certainly be blabbing about them. Maybe pick up a nice reward from the Empire for information about the people that they clearly want captured.

Eragon, however, doesn’t really understand this, and he’s pissed that Murtagh killed Torkenbrand before giving him the chance to surrender. Which also begs the question, what would they have done with him, had he surrendered? Keep him as a prisoner while they ride to the Varden? Or send him running off, so he can tell everyone about Arya?

This leads into the cringiest dialogue I’ve read in awhile.

‘I’m only trying to stay alive,’ stated Murtagh. ‘No stranger’s life is more important than my own.

‘But you can’t indulge in wanton violence. Where is your empathy?’ Eragon growled, pointing at the head.

‘Empathy? Empathy? What empathy can I afford my enemies? Shall I dither about whether to defend myself because it will cause someone pain?’

Yes, please continue this ham-fisted dialogue that just really drives home how morally superior Eragon is to Murtagh.

To Eragon, the world is black and white. You are good, or you are evil. There’s no in-between. But he’s also a Dragon Rider, and his life is going to be filled with hard decisions, where there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer. It would have been interesting to use this moment to show him grappling with morality, to try to see that Murtagh could be a killer, and also his friend, or to wonder if the end truly justifies the means. And he does, a little bit, when he tells Saphira he’s confused. But by the time morning comes around, he decides that killing Torkenbrand was murder, and that Murtagh was in the wrong.

As the serious progresses, Eragon does go on to do some rather morally dubious things. In Brisingr, he and Roran rescue Sloan (hey, remember Sloan?) from the Ra’zac, who have tortured him to the point where he lost his eyes. However, Eragon decides that this isn’t punishment enough for the butcher, as he betrayed Carvahall to the Ra’zac. So, naturally, Eragon decides to tell the only person Sloan cares about, his daughter, that her father was killed. He then leaves Sloan in the desert, after essentially having cursed him to never be allowed to contact his daughter again.

Eragon does this because he can’t bring himself to kill Sloan while he’s so helpless, even though he acknowledges that killing him would be the merciful thing to do. Instead, Eragon makes Sloan’s life infinitely more difficult and painful. You know, after he’s already been tortured for months.

Our hero, everyone.

Maybe I shouldn’t be judging Eragon’s actions two books from now, or point out his hypocrisy for things that he hasn’t done yet.

Too bad. I did it anyway.

At last Saphira understands moral ambiguity, and discusses it with Eragon as the next chapter opens.

‘It was a hasty deed and ill considered, but Murtagh tried to do the right thing. The men who buy and sell other humans deserve every misfortune that befalls them. If we weren’t committed to helping Arya, I would hunt down every slaver and tear them apart!’

‘Yes,’ said Eragon miserably, ‘but Torkenbrand was helpless. He couldn’t shield himself or run. A moment more and he probably would have surrendered. Murtagh didn’t give him that chance. If Torkenbrand had at least been able to fight, it wouldn’t have been so bad.’

‘Eragon, even if Torkenbrand had fought, the results would have been the same. You know as well as I do that few can equal you or Murtagh with the blade. Torkenbrand would have still died, though you seem to think that it would have been more honorable in a mismatched duel.’

‘I don’t know what’s right!’ admitted Eragon, distressed. ‘There aren’t any answers that make sense.’

‘Sometimes,’ said Saphira gently, ‘there are no answers. Learn what you can about Murtagh from this. Then forgive him. And if you can’t forgive, at least forget, for he meant you no harm, however rash the act was. Your head is still attached, yes?’

This is my reminder that that the only reason I’ve continued reading this book is Saphira.

Although I’ve been quite critical of the book and Eragon’s character in general, I really like his talk with Saphira. Eragon seems to be learning that things aren’t always as straight forward as they seem, and I love that he’s wrestling with this new lesson. It’s one of the few times in this book so far that I really felt that Eragon does have an inner world. In a few pages, he suddenly had more character development than he’s gotten for the past ten chapters.

I want to see Eragon change and grow more over the course of the novel, as main characters are meant to do. These changes are more obvious in the beginning of the novel, I think, than near the end. I’m happy to see Eragon struggle with ideals, and finally have to deal with a conflict that can’t be solved with swords and sorcery. This is a good step in Eragon’s journey, though I doubt we’ll get many more moments like this until the book ends.

Because the orcs Urgals are coming! The Urgals are coming!

When Eragon flies on Saphira’s back to get a better look at the approaching horde, she ends up flying too high so there’s not enough oxygen for Eragon, and he passes out. Again. At this point, it’s like losing consciousness has become his hobby.

At least the description of their flight and the mountains below them is nice.

The Urgals, it turns out, are some kind of super-breed, called the Kull, which makes them even stronger and deadlier than their regular counterparts. You know, like Uruk-hai, but they’re not Uruk-hai at all, guys. They’re Kull. See? There’s a world of difference.

On one hand, I know that we’re getting close to the climax of the book, and need to up the ante a little bit. We’ve already seen Eragon take on Urgals and lesser swordsmen without too much of a problem, but the sudden appearance of the Kull feels a bit lazy and contrived to me. Putting the obvious Orc/Urgal parallels aside, the approaching army kind of came out of nowhere. The Varden’s location is incredibly well-hidden, and Eragon and Murtagh escaped pursuit by fleeing across the desert. So are the Kull just being sent to the vast mountain range in hopes of getting lucky and finding the Varden, or did they find Eragon’s location? Or really, are they just here because the story demands it?

Though as much shit as I give Eragon, he and Saphira actually come up with an effective plan to deter the Kull. Namely, dropping boulders on them from a distance. Practical, and effective!

They still remained focused on getting Arya to the Varden as quickly as possible, though, and soon it becomes apparent that Murtagh (who still hasn’t left for some reason) is caught between the Kull army, and going to the Varden. He finally reveals why he doesn’t want to go: he’s Morzan’s son, one of the Foresworn that put Galby on the throne.

That was a wham line for me as a kid. I was expecting some dark and angsty backstory, but I hadn’t thought that he’d be related to Morzan at all. It was a genuine surprise, in part because Morzan is mentioned so infrequently compared to Galby. I was also happy that Galby isn’t Morzan’s father, because even this book knew when it was drifting a little too close to Star Wars.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed about re-reading Eragon: it’s not nearly as fun as the other books I’ve re-read for this blog. In part this is because Eragon is a nincompoop and the prose can be cringey, but it’s also because I know everything that’s going to happen. I know all the twists, and the things that kept the book engaging for me have already been revealed.

Well, we’ve got less than a dozen chapters to go, and I’ve spent too much time explaining the sunk cost fallacy  reading it to stop now.

Eragon 46-47: A Path Revealed

“The Hadarac Desert” is yet another chapter that’s all about traveling, and not a lot happens. The only thing that’s really memorable about it is Saphira’s reaction to the desert.

I feel as though I was made for this desert. It has the space I need, mountains where I could roost, and camouflaged prey that I could spend days hunting. And the warmth! Cold does not disturb me, but this heat makes me feel alive and full of energy.

I love Saphira’s excitement, and how she feels so at home here. Other than that, the details of the travel are rather boring. At one point, it’s noted that they’ve traveled 35 leagues in the desert, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s a measure of distance, but…does anyone know what a league actually is? Saying they’d gone 120 miles (roughly the equivalent of 35 leagues, thanks Google!) would give the reader a better sense of distance, but “league” is keeping with the language of the setting.

As they’re crossing the desert, Eragon, Saphira, and Murtagh discuss the Ra’zac. Saphira says that if they meet again, “they will find I am not so easily bound with chains.” Which she shouldn’t have been in the first place, because, you know, she’s a dragon.

But you know what really bugs me about the Ra’zac? Avenging Garrow’s by killing the Ra’zac dictated Eragon and Brom’s movement in the beginning of the book. When they’re outplayed, though, they just give up and move on. It isn’t unreasonable, really, but they still don’t kill the Ra’zac until the third book. By that time, Eragon should have a lot more on his mind that hunting down the creatures he should have killed a long time ago.

The next chapter was another one that I was curious to read again. Despite all my gripes about this book, there are still some things that I thought were pretty cool, and I wanted to see how well they hold up years later. In this case, it’s Eragon trying to communicate with the still-unconscious Arya by entering into her mind. They mentally struggle, and it looks like Eragon is going to lose this fight. Even though I’m not a fan of Arya, it’s impressive how powerful she is, even in this weakened state.

Eragon learns that Arya has been poisoned, and put herself in a self-induced coma to keep the poison from killing her within hours. She says that she can only remain in this state for a few more days, however, or she will die without the antidote. I think this is a really cool idea, and I like how Paolini emphasizes that elves are not just humans with pointy ears. This is made even more apparent when Arya allows Eragon to enter her mind.

The elf warily let their thoughts touch, like two wild animals meeting for the first time. A cold shiver ran down Eragon’s side. Her mind was alien. It felt vast and powerful, weighted with memories of uncounted years. Dark thoughts loomed out of sight and touch, artifacts of her race that made him cringe when they brushed his consciousness. Yet through all the sensations shimmered a melody of wild, haunting beauty that embodied her identity.

Arya tells Eragon that the rebel group, the Varden, have the antidote, and that he needs to bring her to them. She then reveals the route he can follow to find them.

A series of vertigo-inducing images suddenly flashed through his mind. He found himself riding along the Beor Mountain range, traveling eastward many leagues. Eragon did his best to remember the route as craggy mountains and hills flashed past. He was heading south now, still following the mountains. Then everything wheeled abruptly, and he entered a narrow, winding valley. It snaked through the mountains to the base of a frothy waterfall that pounded into a deep lake.

Got all that? Good, because I sure didn’t.

That sounds like an amazingly complicated route, never mind that Eragon has never seen any of these places before. I have a hard enough time finding the right place to go on streets that are labelled, in the city that I live in. I can take mind-talk and elven comas, but I don’t buy Eragon being able to remember the whole route, let alone find it.

Even so, Eragon insists that they follow this route and go to the Varden, and Murtagh immediately objects. He gets quite angry at Eragon for even suggesting that they try to get to the Varden, but his rage–and ensuing fight with Eragon–really comes out of nowhere. At first his gripe seems to be that he’s tired of saving Eragon all the time, and I can’t blame him there. Seriously, our protagonist has lost consciousness so many times I’ve stopped counting. But the crux of the issue really is that Murtagh doesn’t want to go to the Varden, because of his dark and mysterious past.

I can tell you the Varden wouldn’t welcome me even if I came bearing the king’s head. Oh, they might greet me nicely enough and let me into their councils, but trust me? Never.

Couple things here.

I’m pretty sure the Varden would be happy if you killed Galby, no matter your birth. And I’m equally sure that if the band of rebels doesn’t trust you, they wouldn’t let you in their secret hide-out, and definitely not into their councils.

Right as Murtagh is about to tell the truth about why he’s wanted by the Empire, he’s conveniently cut off by the arrival of Urgals marching towards them, delaying Murtagh’s reveal for several more chapter.

Anyway, Murtagh and Eragon come to the mind-blowingly simple decision to part ways when Eragon and Saphira get close to the Varden. It really was that easy, guys. It shouldn’t take an army of not-orcs to help you come to that conclusion.

Eragon 44-45: The Road Trip

“Water From Stone” was another chapter I was looking forward to reading, mainly because it was one that I remembered from my youth. Sad to say, I remember this chapter better than some more exciting scenes. The first pages are nothing but exposition as Eragon, Murtagh, and Saphira try to figure where they need to go after escaping Gil’ead. Compounding their problems, Arya still hasn’t awoken, making travel more difficult.

The first half of the chapter isn’t all that bad, even if it is something of an information dump. It’s a back-and-forth exchange between Murtagh and Eragon, with Saphira chiming in occasionally. Earlier, Brom’s long lectures were important so the reader could understand the rules of the world, but they felt forced to me. This one here feels a lot more natural, and the chapter moves faster because there’s more than one person participating. Their conversation, just talking about the map and future destinations, moves the plot forward, while Brom’s lessons rarely felt necessary to the overall story.

They decide to attempt to cross the Hadarac Desert, if they can find a way to keep themselves hydrated without having to carry water with them. To do this, Eragon first attempts to transform some dirt to stone. The magic he casts demands so much power that it nearly kills him. It’s the first time we see Eragon overextend himself this way. We’ve seen him pass out from using magic before, sure, but he falls unconscious so often it’s basically lost all meaning. Instead, he loses a lot of energy and is afraid the magic might kill him. It obviously doesn’t, but we also finally see the consequences of using powerful magic.

Another thing I like about this chapter is that the characters finally encounter a problem that can’t be overcome by brute force.  Eragon isn’t strong enough to turn dirt into water, and it looks as though crossing the dessert will be impossible. However, he realizes that there is water under the earth, and all he has to do is lift it up to the surface.  Finally, he manages to solve a problem by creative thinking, not his sword.

As far as the next chapter goes, there’s just…not a lot. I actually found most of the chapter to be humorous, though I’m not sure that was the intention. Eragon, Murtagh, and Saphira debate over the best way to carry the still-unconscious Arya, without her being injured by Saphira’s scales or saddle sores. They finally decide to tie Arya to Saphira’s belly, so she can fly and still carry Arya.

This is also the same sort of solution my Dungeons and Dragons group would have come to, so I can respect that.

Again, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be funny, but I got a chuckle out of it. Largely because it’s so undignified. In truth, I never liked Arya too much. She was always too haughty for me, so it’s a little satisfying to see her tied to Saphira. Especially because we can’t go a full chapter without talking about how beautiful Arya is. There’s at least one mention of her “sculpted lips” that made me groan.

Other than that, there’s not a lot in this chapter worth mentioning. Once they figure out how to transport Arya, the only other obstacle they have to worry about is crossing a river. It’s solved pretty simply by Saphira flying Eragon, Murtagh, and the horses across. This chapter is more bland than anything else, and I’ll be happy we when can go a whole chapter without mentioning Arya’s beauty.

Blandy McBlandface: Flat Antagonists

After my most recent post, I did some more thinking on flat villains. I wondered, am I being too harsh on Eragon? One of my absolute favorite games is Dragon Age: Origins, which features a storyline that couldn’t get much more generic. Namely, a rag-tag bunch of heroes team up to defeat a giant dragon, who is evil, because the story needs an antagonist. But Origins holds up very well, even if it has a lousy Big Bad.

Several years ago I had a video game blog, wherein I cheerfully dissected some of my favorite games. I wondered: if DA:O has such a generic story, why is it so compelling?

I came to a few different conclusions, the first being the world-building. That is, there’s just so much of it. It’s impossible to go through the game without learning the history and culture of Fereldan, and if you ever want to learn more, there’s always an NPC to ask or a Codex to find. And if you still don’t learn something that you want to know, find a nerd like me to ask.

To its credit, Alagaësia, the world of Eragon, is also well-built. I don’t necessarily like how all the information is presented (read: info dumps), but by God, it’s there. The more you read, the more in-depth it gets, from the basic rules of using magic to Elven and Urgal culture. The questions that don’t get answers immediately are usually either a plot device, or put into a later books.

But the thing that kept me playing DA:O was not how interested I was in learning the Chant of Light or because I really wanted learn what it was like to live in a Circle of Magic. What kept me coming back to it, hour after hour, was the characters. There’s the main party, of course: characters like adorkabale Alistair, the witch Morrigan with her own agenda, the badass old lady mage Wynne…they all have their own personalities, and quirks, and are wonderfully vivid. The NPC cast is equally memorable, even if they’re just minor characters. Branka is terrifying, the Rhyming Oak is delightful, and the Chantry Sister who’s too hungry to get the Chant right still makes me laugh.

And I still fangirl over Alistair. Just a little bit.

So far, the list of characters I like in Eragon is…two? Saphira, and Brom. One of which is dead. I was trying to describe Eragon without mentioning his role in the story (a la RedLetterMedia), but I could come up with exactly one personality trait. He’s rash. He makes dumb decisions. That’s it. What are his likes, his dislikes, his fears? How would he react to winning a million dollars? How would he approach someone he’s attracted to? I know so little about the character that I can’t give good answers to any of these questions, except for broad generalization.

But there is one major difference between DA:O and Eragon that I can’t neglect to talk about. They’re two entirely different media. In Dragon Age (and most Bioware games), it’s easy to immerse yourself in the game and put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. Even if the story ends the same way with a flight against the (admittedly bland) Archdemon, the decisions you’ve made to get to that point are more personal, and there’s a certain sense of ownership to them. The game is about the journey, not the destination.

Eragon is a book. It was easier for me to relate to a blank-slate fifteen-year-old character when I was fifteen, reading it for the first time. But age can’t be the only reason; certainly, I’ve enjoyed reading through the trials of the Beaudelaire orphans long after I was out of that target audience. But I can acknowledge that Eragon, too, is about the journey. There are some moments really feel magical, and things that I do like in this book. But the Dragon Rider Blandy McBlandface isn’t enough to suck me into the story.

I’m trying to think of other books with flat villains I’ve read that I really enjoy, and the first thing that came to mind was The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The books are well-crafted and beautifully written. If there’s ever been a great series about the journey, it’s that one. I’m sure a Lord of the Rings fan who knows the lore better than I do could probably write a dissertation one why Sauron is such a bad dude, but it’s not readily apparent to me.

Hell, Wormtongue gets more character development that Sauron. And it was way more fun watching Sarumon fuck everything up than seeing a fiery eyeball hanging out at the top of a tower.

And yet, it works remarkably well. Tolkien has made such a comprehensive world that a simple plot–defeat Sauron by destroying the Ring–that knowing just why Sauron is evil doesn’t feel necessary. If Sauron was more detailed as a character, yes, I might like it better. I might find Sauron scarier than I do. But it also runs the risk of bogging up the journey. Which is, after all, the real story.

But now I’m going to commit blasphemy.

I liked the Lord of the Rings movies better than the books.*

Admittedly, part of this is because the books themselves weren’t all that accessible to me. Tolkien’s known for his flowery prose, which was a bit difficult for me to grasp. There’s also so many names, places, and so much history it’s hard to keep track of it all, even with maps and appendices.

The other part is because I feel like it’s easier to get to know the characters in the films. Thinking back on some of my favorite character moments in the books, there’s only one I remember really well: Sam watching Frodo sleep, thinking about how devoted his is to Frodo and how much he loves him. But aside from that…nothing really sticks out to me.

In the movies, I could see–and have a better appreciation–of the relationships between the members of the Fellowship, their allies and their enemies. I usually don’t cry at movies, but I did when I watched Pippin and Merry separate.

I’ve been told that, to a discerning reader, none of Tolkien’s characters are flat. So maybe I’m the problem. I have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Maybe a well-crafted story doesn’t need a well-crafted antagonist; when I watch Mulan, I’m generally not too badly concerned that Shan-Yu is as flat as cardboard, because I’m too busy cheering on this bad-ass woman. I’m too swept away by Westley and Buttercup’s romance and adventures to really worry about why Prince Humperdink is such a dick.

But what I keep circling back to, time and time again, are the characters. Alistair’s awkwardness, Mulan’s courage, Westley’s wit, the kindness and bravery of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Characters don’t always need to be likable, but they do need to be memorable. You can make an entire universe, but if you fill it with people that don’t stand out in any way, then I’m not going to care about their ultimate triumph or failure against their enemies, no matter how much the antagonist is supposed to scare me.

*We are, of course, going to ignore The Hobbit films. That’s another post entirely.

Eragon 42-43

It’s been awhile since I griped about a single sentence in Eragon, but there’s one that’s just truly perplexing at the beginning of chapter 42, “Fighting Shadows”. During his captivity, Eragon is drugged, which renders him unable to use his magic. He figures out the drug is in his food, and abstains from eating or drinking until it wears off. When it does the following day,

It was dark in Eragon’s cells when he sat up with a start, electrified. The wrinkle had shifted! He had felt the magic at the edge of his consciousness for hours, but every time he tried to use it, nothing happened.

“The wrinkle had shifted”?

That’s such a weird line. I know it means that the drug has worn off, so Eragon isn’t foggy and able to do magic again, but…”wrinkle”? Is there a definition of “wrinkle” that I’ve never heard before? I know I’ve been pretty hard on Eragon, so I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. Maybe this was a phrase that people used and I’d never heard before, so I decided to Google it, just to be sure.

wrinkle-had-shifted

Congratulations, Paolini. You might be the first person to ever have the sentence “The wrinkle had shifted” in a published book.

Since a “wrinkle” was never mentioned before, I choose to believe that it refers to the folds in Eragon’s brain that allow him to use magic.

Not surprisingly, Eragon uses magic to break himself out of prison, at the same time Murtagh arrives in disguise to rescue him. But why wasn’t Murtagh also captured along with Eragon? Murtagh is wanted by the Empire, and it was his appearance in Gil’ead that led to Eragon’s capture. How did Murtagh get away? If it was due to Saphira’s intervention, why would she save Murtagh, and not her Rider?

What if Murtagh had been captured, and not Eragon? Eragon and Saphira could have some conflicts about risking themselves to save him, especially when he’s kept so much of his past a secret. There could have been a dilemma that wasn’t solved with swords or magic, something this book has been severely lacking.

But the plot marches ever-forward, and soon Eragon and Murtagh are rushing off to save Arya. When they find her, there’s another paragraph talking about how beautiful she is, and that she smells like pine needles. Wait, what? She’s been imprisoned and tortured for months. She shouldn’t smell nice. She should smell like iron and blood and…well, maybe elves’ sweat smells like pine needles. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

The most exciting part of this chapter is when Eragon duels the Shade, Durza, to try to cover Murtagh’s escape with Arya. We’ve seen Durza use magic in the prologue, but it didn’t have a lot of impact on the reader’s view of him, because we knew so little about what was going on. When Eragon and Durza engage in a sword fight, we know what’s at stake. We also have something to compare Durza to. We know that Eragon’s a gifted swordsman, but Durza is toying with him when they fight. There’s a huge gap between their skills, and so their fight is actually interesting to read, knowing Eragon is likely to lose.

The day is saved by Saphira, who ends up landing on the prison and destroying it. Normally I’m not a fan of the “Big Damn Heroes” trope, with the characters arriving right in the nick of time to save everyone. In this case I’ll forgive it, because Saphira is one of the few reasons I’ve managed to keep reading this book.

My first complaint about the next chapter, “A Warrior and a Healer”, was the abundant use of adverbs. The one that struck me as the laziest was Eragon “tiredly” healing one of Saphira’s wounds after their escape from Gil’ead.

Eragon also brings up that elves speak the Ancient Language, and most of them can use magic. This still brings me back to the question I had many chapters ago: how do elves have a conversation without casting spells and lighting everything on fire? This book goes into detail on so many things I don’t care about and have no impact on the story, but still has yet to answer that one question.

As Eragon, et. al. flee from Gil’ead, Murtagh tells him that the Urgals and Durza were working for Galby. No shit. Even as a kid, I knew that would be the case. The obvious bad guys are working for the bigger bad guy. This is just how the hierarchy of villainy works. I wasn’t shocked then, and I wasn’t shocked now.

I am, perhaps, a little more shocked and disappointed by Saphira’s explanation of all this.

A sick, angry feeling welled in his stomach. ‘The Urgals were under Galbatorix’s orders! Why would he commit such an atrocity on his own subjects?’

‘Because he is evil,’ stated Saphira flatly.

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From Saphira’s perspective, this makes perfect sense. However, this is one of the big problems I have with the Inheritance series. Galby is evil because he’s crazy, and…well, that’s it. The antagonist who is evil for the sake of being evil is just a lousy villain. There’s no greater depth to them, no chance for them to be sympathetic or intriguing. If your only descriptor is “evil”, you’re not just a flat character. You’re boring and indistinguishable from the multitude of bland, oh-so-evil forgotten baddies.

After Eragon learns the not-so-shocking truth about the Urgals and Durza, he sets about to healing Arya. Paolini spends two paragraphs describing her wounds: back covered with bruises, oozing cuts, marks from whips and hot brands. Credit where it’s due: the description of Arya’s wounds is pretty horrifying, especially when you add in the fact she’s probably been tortured daily for months. So, nice one, Paolini.

But we still can’t go one chapter without mentioning how beautiful the elf is, even after she’s been brutally tortured.

[H]e could not help but notice that underneath the disfiguring marks, her body was exceptionally beautiful.

Ugh.

 

Eragon 40-41: Capture at Gil’ead

And so we keep moving forward with Eragon, and the next chapter, “Capture at Gil’ead”. Hm, I wonder what’s going to happen here? As chapters titles go, I guess it’s not bad. Certainly, no worse than “Doom of Innocence”. But it doesn’t leave much room for suspense. However, the title does come from the only memorable part of this chapter, so there’s that.

Most of this chapter seems like filler. Eragon and Murtagh are traveling to Gil’ead, where Brom had instructed Eragon to go before he died. I found it really boring and uneventful. This is partly because I’ve been reading Storm of Swords, where characters can’t step out their door for five minutes before something terrible happens, never mind a long journey. Where’s the bandits and gore? But more than that, this chapter covers weeks worth of travel, long enough for Eragon’s broken ribs to heal, and we see only three conversations between Eragon and Murtagh, and even less of Saphira. All the events are glossed over, and it’s really disappointing.

For instance, Eragon and Murtagh must ride near Urû’baen*, the capital where Galby reigns. Eragon and Saphira have just escaped from some of Galby’s most fearsome allies, and everyone loyal to the king will be on the look-out for them. They’ll have to use all their wits and skills to keep Saphira hidden and remain free, or else a fate most foul awaits them.

Or not. Instead, we get this.

Their travels north forced them toward the capital, Urû’baen. It was a heavily populated area, which made it difficult to escape notice. Soldiers patrolled the roads and guarded the bridges. It took them several tense, irritable days to skirt the capital.

That’s it. Seriously, that’s all we get. What might have been exciting and tense is boiled down to one insipid paragraph.

There’s another thing I’m trying to figure out as well. When I first read this book, I really liked Murtagh. He was easily my favorite character. Now, I’m honestly trying to remember why. I think it’s because he’s a badass with a dark and mysterious past, and I always did like angsty boys.** But Murtagh hasn’t exhibited much personality other than those few traits. Even when though we’ve known him for a few chapters now, we still don’t know much more about him as a person than we did when we first met him. In this chapter he demonstrates that he’s smarter than Eragon, but so are most characters in this book.

After pages of being told (not shown) that Eragon and Murtagh are friends, they arrive near Gil’ead and Murtagh arranges a meeting with one of Brom’s allies. But then–gasp!–Eragon loses consciousness. Again. And gets captured. Again.

How many times has he fainted now? I stopped counting.

Eragon wakes in a cell, drugged and dopey. He’s fairly sedated, to the point where he can’t remember enough of the Ancient Language to use magic to escape. He does see the elf from his dreams, Arya, in the prison, and her description is…well…

Her long midnight-black hair obscured her face, despite a leather strip bound around her head to hold the tresses back. [. . .] Her sculpted face was as perfect as a painting. Her round chin, high cheekbones, and long eyelashes gave her an exotic look. The only mar in her beauty was a scrape along her jaw; nevertheless, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen.

It made me roll my eyes, but then I remembered that the elves in this universe are a race of Mary Sues. Brom did imply this before, and the point really gets hammered home in the sequel, Eldest. After remembering that, I don’t mind it as much. At least it makes sense with the rest of the book.

No, it’s Eragon’s reaction that’s truly worthy of an eye roll.

Eragon’s blood burned as he looked at her. Something awoke in him–something he had never felt before. It was an obsession, except stronger, almost a fevered madness.

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All other obvious jokes aside, I do have another nit to pick about this chapter. In the first book in the series, Eragon’s greatest enemy is Durza, the Shade. Remember Durza, how scary he was?

Oh, no, you don’t. Or, at least, I didn’t. Until now, Durza had only been in the prologue. There was passing mention of Shades and how dangerous they are, but I don’t think we’re ever told what exactly a Shade is. Far more time is spent learning about the Ra’zac or dragons, which is fair. But when it becomes clear that Eragon wouldn’t be able to defeat the Ra’zac, his new enemy becomes Durza. But since we know next to nothing about Shades or Durza, his sudden appearance here doesn’t do much to scare the reader.

That, and because Durza’s description sounds like Ronald McDonald. White face with red lips and hair? Forget powerful magician, he’s a hamburger-slinging clown.

Durza has a conversation with Eragon, saying that he’s visiting the cell just to gloat at capturing a Dragon Rider. You know, an action that’s never led to any villain’s downfall, ever. In truth, he comes to find out exactly what Eragon’s “true name” is, which is a wasted effort as Eragon doesn’t even know what it really is.

If you ask me, the true purpose of their conversation is to remind the reader that Eragon has enemies besides the Ra’zac, but Durza doesn’t feel particularly threatening, especially since it’s been more than 40 chapters since we last heard from the Shade, or cared about what he was doing.

*Do you really need both the apostrophe and the û?! One is more than enough. Now you’re just fucking with us, Paolini.
**Adulting Protip: Leave the dark, brooding male lead in fiction where he belongs. Do not date him in real life.