Saturday, January 14, 2006

Dragons, Dungeons, and Destinies, Oh My!

I have a tendency to put off reading some of our bestsellers, and for good reason. First of all, as I told a manager recently, I don't need to read the popular books in order to sell them, they sell themselves. More importantly, they rarely live up to their hype, especially the ones where everyone seems to be talking about the fact that "it was written by a fifteen year old!" instead of how good it was. I do start to feel like a dork, however, when parents continually ask me for my opinion, and I have none. Plus, the kids often come in raving about them, and I tend to trust them more, as they rarely ask me stupid questions. So I was quite pleased when Eragon was the January pick for the teen book club I facilitate, because now I would have to read it - no excuses accepted.

Unfortunately, Eragon didn't live up to the hype. I can see why so many kids love it - it's very much like all the fantasy books I read when I was in elementary school and junior high. However, it's so very much like them simply because it rips off of nearly every one of them - and Paolini doesn't add anything new to the story.

Warning! Spoilers may follow!

Title: Eragon - The Inheritance, Book I
Author(s): Christopher Paolini
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0375826696
List Price: $9.95

good for: grades 5 -8, or anyone who doesn't mind a re-hashing of just about every other fantasy book out there
best for: boys too old for Narnia, but not ready for Tolkein
staff rec: paperback read

Eragon is simply a mish mash of a bunch of other books condensed down into one plot. That, by itself, is not bad. In fact, it makes it a fairly decent first "epic" fantasy for young readers who want something more complex than Narnia, but aren't quite ready for any of the truly epic fantasies. I'm sure it's quite entertaining for it's intended audience; for everyone else it's absurdly predictable, without any true genius of prose to save it from becoming boring. It is well written, but in a textbook sort of way that manages to convey setting, character, and plot clearly, but still lacks any sort of personal style or memorable scenes. It's very much a plot driven book, which tends to keep people turning the pages, as well as a textbook hero's journey, which explains how I knew half of what was going to happen before it did. Both of these characteristics explain Eragon's popularity despite essentially being a Mary Sue story written by talented teenager with a lot of time of his hands.

The story did get more complex towards the end, and therefore slightly less predictable. The characters, although they are simply stock characters, are not so two dimensional that they cannot grow in later books. Keep in mind, also, that I didn't like the first Harry Potter book, and still don't. Paolini may manage to surprise me just as Rowling did. With only two more books to go, I rather doubt it will happen in this series, though. Without the complexity of a future Goblet of Fire or The Order of the Phoenix to retroactively give the story more meaning, and the absence of "running bits" or reference to mythology to act as clues, Eragon will likely remain exactly what it is: a decent, but simple, fantasy book about a kid who finds a talisman, loses everything, and sets off on a quest with a wise old man to fight evil and save the princess.

It's also very much a "boy" book, and by that I don't just mean that the protagonist is a boy. All but one of the main characters is male and most of the female characters are tertiary, rather than secondary. By itself, that would be just fine - it's not as if the American Girl series is teeming with boys. My problem with the book is that the female characters existence is defined, with the exception of Angela and Ayra, by their relationship to male characters, often secondary male characters. Men and boys in "girl" books have relationships to each other outside of their connection to the girls in the story. Women and girls rarely have the same in boy books, and Eragon is no exception.

It doesn't help that it's made very clear that one of the two female characters who is a person in her own right, isn't really after all. Right after beating Eragon at swords, Ayra confesses that, while being held captive by our evil nemesis, "When torture failed, he ordered his soldiers to use me as they would. Fortunately, I still had the strength to nudge their minds and make them incapable." Why in the world is this here - except to ensure our readers that Ayra may have been nearly tortured to death, but she still managed to save herself for our protagonist?

I don't worry about this so much when it comes to girls reading this book because there are plenty of more positive options out there that appeal to girls. I worry about the boys because I know there are so few options available for them, and many of those are substantially worse than Eragon is when it comes to portraying women and girls as people rather than something that exists for men and boys.

Overall, Eragon is a perfect example of what works for adolescent boys and what doesn't - it just never manages to become more than that or break out of the mold of not being able to be boy-centered without "othering" girls and women.

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