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Book cover art by John Jude Palencar.
Review © 2003 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Into the rapidly spinning post-Harry Potter world of young adult fantasy comes the first book in a trilogy actually written by a young adult. Christopher Paolini was only 19 when Knopf picked up this 500-page tome and made it a YA bestseller. Needless to say, much of the marketing behind this novel has focused on Paolini's youth, presenting him to the world as something of a prodigy and doubtless inspiring much sotto voce backbiting amongst snobby genre fans and envious struggling writers who have spent decades in the cul-de-sac of the fantasy publishing midlist, never seeing their sales creep above average and watching the effort of years routinely vanish out of print. Artists, after all, are only people, and it can sting when someone who has been a pro for longer than Paolini has been alive, and for whom publishing has been a Sisyphean slog with true success always lying elusively out of sight like a unicorn, has to witness the overnight success of a kid who appears to have just had it all handed to him.

There may be something to such criticisms, but the wide world of promotion and marketing notwithstanding, one has to congratulate this young man for his fledgling effort. It's hard to write a novel, even moreso to do it well. Burgeoning talent should always be encouraged, and if Paolini's success inspires other young people to take up the keyboard — if, like Rowling, Paolini inspires literacy among youth — then he deserves a rousing hand. That Eragon is, on its own merits, a formula exercise all the way with the requisite VLFN stock characters reporting for duty is forgivable under the circumstances.

Eragon's plot dusts off the old chestnut about a callow, archetypal "hero with a thousand faces" youth of humble (but secretly not so humble) origins finding an artifact, in this case a dragon's egg, that propels him on a Quest to Find His Destiny. If you're sick to death of this kind of thing, stay home. Given that Eragon's young target audience has probably only recently discovered an interest in fantasy due to Rowling and the Lord of the Rings movies, they could choose many, many worse books than this one to introduce them to the genre's clichés. And unlike fantasy's older Tolkien imitators (who ought to know better), Paolini uses these conventions as a roadmap to find his own developing voice. You could make a musical analogy; lots of musicians cover songs by their mentors and influences, but the best cover versions are those where the musician stamps his signature on the old song. I'm hopeful, based on this story, that as Paolini matures his stories will begin to strike out on their own paths instead of retreading well-worn ones.

Synopsis in a nutshell: Eragon is a 15-year-old farmhand living with his uncle and cousin in the rural hamlet of Carvahall, located in the northern part of the empire of Alagaësia. One day while hunting in the woods he stumbles upon a mysterious stone, which turns out to be a dragon's egg. The dragon hatches, and dragon and boy develop a mental bond. With a little help from Brom, the local sage (whom we know will soon become the boy's mentor, closer to Obi-Wan than Gandalf), Eragon names the dragon Saphira, after the first of the Dragon Riders, an ancient class of warriors now thought to be long-extinct.

In no time there's Trouble in River City. Creepy henchmen of the evil emperor Galbatorix come to town searching for the egg and, in Star Wars fashion, Eragon returns home to the farm to find the place razed to the ground and his uncle at death's door. Vowing vengeance upon the killers, Eragon sets off with Saphira and Brom southward, and Brom fills Eragon and us in on the history of the empire, the Dragon Riders, and why Galbatorix is so desperate to get Saphira into his clutches. Eragon and Saphira's bond grows, and soon he is a full-fledged Rider. We also learn that there is, of course, much more to Brom than meets the eye; he's involved with a growing revolt against Galbatorix from a shadowy organization known as the Varden. And there was also a reason Saphira's egg was where it was when Eragon found it. Eragon soon realizes that his Destiny is intertwined with this revolt, and he must reach the Varden — as well as solve the riddle of the dreams he keeps having of an imprisoned elf princess — before he is captured by Galbatorix's ravening hordes of, I mean Urgal.

Okay, nothing new here in the plot department. The book has few surprises, though the few it does have are swell. What there is, though, is some solid writing. I don't see too many writers at all, much less those this young, with such a strong command of language. Paolini writes concise, confident prose, refreshingly devoid of stylistic indulgence. And he is so meticulous about logical story structure that some elements of his plot — political allegiances and the like — are explained to an anal-retentive degree.

And though I will happily call Eragon a personal triumph for Paolini for which he deserves to be tremendously proud, the book — to put it politely — won't go down as one of the great fantasy novels of the age. In the final analysis, it's too long (the last hundred pages lose a lot of steam, though the climactic battle scene is rousing), many of the supporting characters seem perfunctory (particularly Arya, who I thought needed to be much more developed), and, like so many quest fantasies, way too much ink is given over to lengthy scenes of riding for miles and miles while one character (here, Brom) plays Captain Exposition and rattles off backstory.

But Paolini is off to a decent start with this debut, and all props to Knopf for taking the chance on him. Once his talent for developing original ideas catches up to his talent for storytelling and writing, he will be well on his way to becoming one of the genre's A-list names, and he might even have a Hugo or World Fantasy Award under his belt well before he hits 30. Don't you just hate him?

Followed by Eldest.