In light of this series coming back to the small screen with Disney picking this series up for adaptation, I decided to do a re-read of this story. My goal is to try to determine how the story can be adapted to the screen, and if the story holds up to modern inspection.
If the author by some chance stumbles across this critique, my apologies. I am a fan of your work- I’ve read this very book 5+ times- however I’m not going to hold back in my critique. I know this book’s author was a teenager when he wrote this (thus me pointing out the flaws in this book a bit like making fun of a child), but I’m still going to be thorough in my discussion of this story’s flaws.
Spoilers Below! You’ve been warned. Also, all reviews are subjective. My opinions are my own. I’m writing this review as an author critiquing another author’s book, in an attempt to improve my own writing and editing skills.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Quest Fantasy
- Star Wars-esque
- Chosen One
- Anyone 9+.
- This book feels a bit like ‘baby’s first fantasy.’ And this is a good thing! I’d compare it to something like the Riyeria Revelations or the Belgariad series- aka an approachable fantasy series to get someone into reading this genre while they are fairly young.
- Every novel is someone’s first novel. ‘Beginner Fantasy’ is a VERY legitimate marketing strategy- after all, EVERYONE is a beginner at some point in their life. This was my entry into the genre, as an example.
- A more experienced reader, who has read deeply in the genre, has probably read one or two stories which are similar to this. Such a reader might want to read a less trope-y novel.
IF YOU ARE IN THE TARGET AUDIENCE, OR THE GENRES/TROPES SOUND INTERESTING TO YOU, SHOULD YOU READ THIS?
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
I personally feel that FOR WHAT THIS STORY IS,* it holds up.
*= I need to add some caveats here. Is this book the most well-written, inventive story to ever be written? No. I entered this story knowing that this wouldn’t be high-art, and would be a bit rough around the edges.
Sure enough, this story had problems with infodumping; showing and not telling; and the characters/emotion/dialog are a dry. But by-and-large, it set out to tell an fun story, and it succeeded in that task.
Overall, I give the story’s Emotional Resonance: (2/5 Stars)
Note: Three stars is what I default to giving good books. This is a good book… but it’s got major flaws. I therefore give it two stars. Two stars are good! I view 2 star books as pleasantly readable, but not ‘perfect’ in some significant way.
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
I read this book several times when I was younger. Reading this was nostalgia-tastic for me. It’s been 12+ years since last I read it, so I don’t remember it very well. I’m a fan, but not a mega-fan. However I’ll admit this series was my gateway drug into being a lifelong fantasy genre reader.
A Study of ‘Dragon Mage’ by M. L. Spencer
‘The Eye of the World’ Book Review
A Review of ‘The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter’ by Elizabeth Moon, Book 1 of The Deed of Paksenarion
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
This book gets some flack for being deeply inspired by Star Wars. I can’t contest that, the similarities are obvious. It’s concept is “Star Wars meets Anne McCaffery’s Dragons of Pern meets Lord of the Rings.” This book wears it’s inspirations with pride, and there’s no shame in that.
Young Eragon is a prototypical/stereotypical farm boy Chosen One who must go on an adventure to defeat the Dark Lord (LotR). Fate hands him a dragon, who he must raise, teach and then ride into battle (McCaffery). Eragon is taught magic by a strange, magical hermit who lives in his hometown, until his family is massacred by black cloaked-and-hooded enemies, and Eragon is forced to go on the run (Star Wars, LotR). He then must go save a princess from captivity (Star Wars). He then goes to make friends with the Rebellion, which is made up a plucky group of diverse people of various races, species, genders and religions (Star Wars). In the end, Eragon saves the day through the power of friendship, with his dragon BFF and budding love interest.
This book’s concept is broadly executed well. It is at it’s best when it’s sticking to it’s source materials. To be frank, this book was shamelessly trope-y, strongly echoing Star Wars, LotR and McCaffery’s oeuvre. And you know what? That’s fine. As a ‘beginner’s fantasy’ novel, this is targeted to people who haven’t consumed Star Wars, LotR or McCaffery. To such a reader, they won’t see the tropes. Instead, they’ll only see a good story. (Take me as an example; this was my first fantasy series back in the day.)
I’ve seen people give ‘Eragon’ some shit for being poorly written. This book does have problems, as one might expect from a story written by a 15 year old. It’s a bit infodumpy; it’s characters are a bit 2D; it relies a bit too much on adjectives. I could go on, but you get the point. Those people’s complaints have an element of truth.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
Okay, so Eragon is one of the most extremely Chosen One Chosen Ones who’ve I’ve ever read. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing! The Chosen One genre has a lot of fans. If you want to read about a character who pretty much instantly becomes a master swordsman, a skilled sorcerer, a dragon rider, this is potentially a good book for you. I can’t quite say this is a power fantasy, but it’s close.
The characters don’t have satisfying character arcs.
I found it kinda annoying that Sapphira was unable to verbally speak or engage in conversations with multiple people. Her telepathic communication, when combined with the rule that dragons rarely speak with people who aren’t their riders, made her feel like an adjunct to Eragon’s narrative as opposed to having a narrative of her own. I hope that in the show they let her engage in conversations with more than one person at a time, perhaps even giving her her own plot arc.
I liked the dynamic between Eragon and Murtaugh. Eragon was the lawful good paladin, while Murtaugh got the job done even if it means doing despicable things. At one point, Murtaugh killed a helpless slaver. I liked this development, because Eragon and Murtaugh got in a fight about it. And in the end, Sapphira more or less sided with Murtaugh over Eragon on the topic. It was a really nice as an event, because it made Eragon as a character sorta doubt himself. I personally agree with Murtaugh’s and Sapphira’s arguments on the topic. This dynamic was so good, I wish the narrative played into it a little more.
Overall, the characters weren’t the best. Brom never really got his chance to shine; Sapphira seemed to exist mostly as a support character for Eragon as opposed to the hero of her own story; Arya was a princess-like character who needed to be saved from an enemy fortress. Murtaugh was the most interesting of the lot due to his good nature combined with checkered past, but sadly I don’t think we got enough of him.
This book is tropey. Being tropey isn’t necessarily bad. I hope that when they make the tv show, that this is an area where the screenwriters focus for improvement. Keep the tropes, but add some character arcs and characterization. Seems like low hanging fruit if they use the new medium to add a few filler episodes where they give the minor characters entire episodes to flesh out their storylines with personal stories.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
SPOILERS FOR THIS BOOK AND SERIES
The book’s structure is a bit iffy, if truth be told. It feels like the author mirrored the plot of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ without really understanding just what made that movie great. To be fair, if you’re going to echo something, that’s a good movie to echo.
I feel that the source of the problem is that the main antagonist for the first half of the story are the ra’zac, while the shade is the main antagonist for the second half. Further, Brom is killed by the ra’zac at the midway point in the story, mirroring how Obi-Wan was killed. However, his death just feels… anticlimactic. I think it feels off because we never receive an emotional resolution to his death. We don’t get revenge on the ra’zac here, so the balance of this novel never pays off and his death doesn’t really feel earned.
As a result of this first half ra’zac/second half shade structure, the two halves of the book feel strangely disconnected from one another. For the first half, Eragon is pretty much tagging along with Brom as his sidekick, with the goal of getting revenge; in the second half, Eragon is forced to strike out on his own, abandoning the goal of revenge in favor of joining the Varden. To me, it felt like two different stories stapled together, with the ra’zac plotline feeling stranded after the midpoint.
If I were this book’s editor, I would make a few suggestions.
- If the shade was with the ra’zac when they attacked Eragon’s home town, it would have helped unite the disconnected first half with the second half.
- Playing up Durza as the antagonist throughout the first half would help prevent the book from feeling stranded after the ra’zac leave the story at the midpoint climax.
- Maybe Durza was the ultimate creator of the poison, so after failing to kill the ra’zac, the new plan is to kill the shade instead.
- Or maybe Durza was there with the ra’zac at the midpoint battle, and helped defeat Brom.
- Or the ra’zac are with the urgals+Durza in the final battle
- Second, I would wait until later in the story to kill Brom.
- Killing Brom at the midpoint feels like a pro-forma copying of Obi-Wan’s death; killing Obi-Wan at the Midpoint Climax was the right thing for Star Wars, but I don’t think it was the right thing for this story.
- In the context of this series as a whole, I think Brom sacrificing himself to save Eragon from Durza at the very end might be a better choice.
- Additionally, in retrospect of reading more in this series, it feels weird that Brom didn’t confess to being Eragon’s bio-dad on his deathbed.
- Finally, somewhere in the early half of the story I’d add a new storybeat: I’d have Brom and Eragon go help out a Varden guerilla cell deep in Empire territory.
- As the book is written now, it seems random that Eragon decides to join the Varden. He’s never met the Varden, so why would he want to join them? Why not run away?
- Adding new storybeat early is important because it helps explain Eragon’s sudden change of motivation later on from being solely pro-revenge to being pro-Varden after the midpoint climax. Introducing the Varden while Eragon is still on his revenge quest would help explain why Eragon switches from being pro-vengence to pro-Varden.
- I’d introduce characters who are important later in the story at this point, like Nasuada, the twins, and Arya. This is important to put a friendly face on the Varden early, so they’re more than just a stereotypical ‘Rebellion’ and instead a specific, unique group of rebels. It also helps foreshadow the end of the book.
- I’d possibly replace the sequence in Teirm with this, because Teirm felt dull to me. But include Angela and Solumbum in the replacement scene.
I hope that in the tv show they make changes in some of these areas.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
I feel that this book had problems with stakes. Specifically, I’ll point out Teirm. When the heroes invade Teirm’s palace, they’re caught by the enemy. And then the enemy lets them free. There was no fight, no tension; the heroes are just let go. This was an easy moment for the narrative to include a fight scene to increase the stakes (or to include the guerilla scene I mentioned above).
I personally feel that the story’s tension was pretty good (barring the moments of infodumping discussed below). The story felt like it was constantly under pressure, with the heroes either constantly on the run from the bad guys, or hunting down the bad guys. This constant sense of pressure increased the story’s tension.
The plot itself was acceptable. For all the comparisons to Star Wars: A New Hope, I feel like it doesn’t match up in one important way: this story lacks as a ‘Death Star.’ The Death Star was an iconic narrative device which is so cool that series repeated it untold times. If I were this book’s editor editing this contemporaneously with it’s original release, I’d suggest the author come up with a ‘Death Star’ like storydevice to help bring the two halves of the story together.
Why? In ‘A New Hope,’ the Death Star served the purpose of putting a ticking clock on the narrative. I feel this story could have used such a clock. For example, Brom and Eragon could set out from Carvahal with news that the Varden were going to be attacked by urguls, and they had to deliver that message before the Varden are destroyed.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
A lot of Tolkienesque fantasy uses what I like to call ‘Ye Olde Fantasee’ style of prose, meaning it attempts to mimic something of the mouthfeel of Tolkien’s original work. By this I mean the prose attempts to strike a deliberately archaic style. If you’ve read very many Tolkienesque books, you probably know what I’m talking about.
The prose here attempts to mimic the vibe of Tolkein’s beautiful prose by using the occasional adjective or adverb to add a texture to the narrative. For example, this book says things like ‘Sapphira’s velvety wing’ or ‘the pearlescent moon.’ I felt that these descriptors didn’t work.
I must state that I found the prose here to be purple. Just throwing in an adjective here or there doesn’t improve the quality of the writing, but instead drags it down. Adjectives are useful tools, but when overused can drag down the quality of a story.
In storytelling circles, there’s a saying that you should cut all your adjectives. I disagree with that statement. However, there is an element of truth to it, at least in this case.
I live by the rule of thumb that you should only use adjectives/adverbs if they make your story more accurate; otherwise you should trust your reader to imagine what you’re trying to say. For example, take the phrase ‘the green frog.’ In that case, I would remove the word ‘green’ because I think that when most people picture a frog, they’ll picture it as green. Or take the phrase ‘the blue frog.’ In that case I’d keep the adjective, because most people don’t automatically picture blue frogs.
Next, I am of the opinion that a story should not describe a noun with a description unless that description is true. In this case, let’s reflect upon ‘Sapphira’s velvety wing.’ Well, velvet when used in this context means fur. The text of this story is saying that Sapphira- a dragon- has fur. Are dragons in Alagaesia mammals or lizards?
Another one is the ‘pearlescent moon.’ ‘Pearlescent’ means rainbow colored, like mother-of-pearl. Is the moon in Alagaesia rainbow colored?
Similarly, this book has some problems with anachronisms. Anachronisms in this context are words which seem out of place in the story due to the context behind that word.
For example, I noticed was how Durza was described as having a ‘runner’s build.’ By using the words ‘runner’s build,’ the narrative implies that people run for sport in the world of Alagaesia. Well, on planet earth, running didn’t become a common hobby until the 1960/70’s. Alagaesia is stuck in the medieval era. This felt like an anachronism to me. I would have preferred if the narrative used ‘an athletic build’ instead.
Another anachronism is how when the narrative used words liked ‘scanned’ and ‘probed’ in reference to mind reading. When I see words like that, they feel modern and technological, not magical and fantastical. Such anachronistic words disrupt the reading experience.
I forgive these problems. Even many years since I first read this, I still find it SUPER impressive that this book was written by a teenager. I’m sure that Paolini, as an experienced writer, would no longer make these mistakes.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
This book’s setting/worldbuilding is not super original. It has elves, dwarves, dragons. It has an evil empire ruled by a Dark Lord. The main character is a Chosen One. Not being super original is fine; unoriginality is a part of genre expectations for the sub-genre of Tolkienesque epic fantasy. Part of the appeal of this sub-genre of Tolkienesque fiction is a conservative nostalgia, invoking the past using traditional staid tropes. I would personally prefer if this book was a bit more original.
Holy Infodumping, Batman! This book probably is the most extreme case of infodumping I’ve ever read. Some infodumping is good; too much is bad. And this book has TOO MUCH.
What exactly is infodumping? Infodumping is a storytelling technique where an author (usually in the fantasy genre) takes long lengths of time away from the narrative in order to explain something. In the fantasy genre, infodumps are usually used to explain aspects of magic, history, or worldbuilding. In a story, especially in the niche genre of fantasy, it is important for your reader to understand things; infodumping is a very direct method for explaining the strange aspects of your story. The problem is that infodumping, when used poorly, is a massive slog to read.
Infodumping isn’t always bad. Infodumping is a fast and thorough method to explain something and then get on with a story. Sometimes a story is best served with a brief interlude where the author steps away from the narrative to explain a topic before stepping back into the narrative. Infodumping can lower a story’s tension, which can be a useful tool in an author’s toolbox if they want to let a story relax after a particularly high-stress moment. If you infodump only once in your story to explain something, and you infodumpt at the exact right moment, it might increase the quality of that story!
But if you infodump too often- as happened here in ‘Eragon’- then you might lower a story’s tension too frequently. By frequently infodumping, you lower a story’s tension so much that the main narrative of the story suffers from a lack of tension and forward propulsion. Like all things, an infodump is a tool best used in moderation.
The audiobook was well done. If I were to comment, I’d have to say that the narrator was a bit too obvious about giving the evil characters evil voices. This is fine normally, except for the evil twins. The evil twins were supposed to be surprise traitors; by giving them such obviously evil voices it spoiled the twist.
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- Be very accurate when describing something. If you use an adjective to describe a noun, make sure that adjective is true to what you’re trying to describe.
- Infodump judiciously.
- Avoid anachronisms where appropriate.
- Trope-y books are fun. If you’re playing in a sub-genre where using traditional tropes is part of what’s expected of an author, go hog-wild in using those tropes. Good artists borrow, great artists steal.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
Does this book hold up with the passage of time? I think so, if you keep your expectations in proper perspective. This book is very much of it’s time (’90’s fantasy revival where tropey books were common). It most certainly has flaws (as I’ve enumerated here). But overall, I enjoyed it, and I’m still impressed a teenager wrote this. Go in wanting to have some big, dumb fun, and you’ll have a good time.
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