Literature Commentary: Inheritance

As a fantasy-loving 14-year-old, few books stirred my imagination more than Christopher Paolini’s “Eragon” and “Eldest.” Not only were both novels rousing adventures, they were also authored by a former homeschooler just a few years older than me – inspiring for a young writer like me. I devoured both tomes (four times apiece) and eagerly anticipated the concluding installment.

Fast forward three years, and Paolini made a horribly misguided decision: splitting the final volume into two. After years of anticipation, “Brisingr” just fell flat. Not only was the writing not up to snuff with his previous work, “Brisingr” barely advanced the story and lapsed into tedious subplots. I wasn’t holding my breath for Book 4 – the story had become horribly predictable, and a half-rate conclusion was assured. Or so I thought.

It’s been three more years, but the quartet-concluding finale – “Inheritance” – has finally arrived. And I am happy to report that it vastly surpassed my expectations.

“Inheritance” picks up immediately after “Brisingr.” Young warrior Eragon and his mentally-linked dragon, Saphira, are finally beginning their campaign against evil King Galbatorix. Backed by a host of allies – elf princess Arya, rebel commander Nasuada, Eragon’s brawny cousin Roran, dwarf king Orik, and others – they press forward through enemy city after enemy city. And all the while, they must contend with Eragon’s half-brother Murtagh, a fallen Dragon Rider allied with Galbatorix.

It all sounds terribly clichéd to anyone who’s read much fantasy. And the first 500 pages of “Inheritance” (it’s a colossal 850-page volume) are a predictable slog. Most of the major plot elements here have been clear almost from the start of the series. Good guys fight enemies, suffer a few minor struggles along the way, and approach the final battle. And on and on it goes. I wasn’t holding my breath for anything spectacular.

But as the book hits its third act, the story suddenly explodes into pulse-pounding life. A series of clever, expectation-defying twists is thrown in, leading to a thrilling and deeply satisfying climax. Characters are forced to use more than brute strength to accomplish their goals – a refreshing departure from what I expected. Reading the last half of “Inheritance,” I felt like a young teenager enjoying “Eragon” for the first time. The magic and wonder of Paolini’s fantasy universe finally blossoms, and the plot takes some surprisingly mature directions. The fact is, this is an exciting final chapter, and I certainly didn’t expect to be as riveted as I was.

From a stylistic standpoint, the book is unfortunately weighed down by Paolini’s poor writing. Particularly in the first half of the book, I found myself stopping mid-paragraph to marvel at the ineptness of Paolini’s prose (and, for that matter, his editor). “Inheritance” too often dissolves into a rush of “thesaurian” words, overwrought similes, and badly constructed sentences. (It’s worth noting, though, that by the end I wasn’t distracted by this anymore – maybe I was too engaged in the story, or maybe the writing simply gets better as the book goes on).

“Inheritance” is also crippled by bloat – the same sort of bloat that afflicts almost all of Robert Jordan’s later work. There comes a time when every writer must sacrifice subplots and extraneous characters in the name of the greater story. If that has to be done by killing off unneeded characters, so be it. These elements shouldn’t have been there in the first place unless they advance the plot somehow. In retrospect, virtually all of “Brisingr” should have been sent to the chopping block, as well as a good third of “Inheritance.” There is no reason – short of wanton profit-mongering – that this series needed to extend across four huge books.

(Aside: With all due respect to Paolini, the wait time between books has been completely unreasonable. If Terry Brooks and Ted Dekker can crank out multiple, well-written 400-page novels within one year, more than three years is ridiculous for an 850-page book. Just had to get that off my chest…)

One of the great strengths of Paolini’s writing, however, is his fascinating attention to cultural details. Occasionally, “Inheritance” lapses into beautiful moments of deep reverie. The joy and mystery of an undiscovered world shines through, drawing the reader’s attention away from dull political diatribes and endless spell casting. Throughout “Inheritance,” clever little touches are thrown in – the legend of an ancient tribal hero, for instance, or an indestructible sword crafted from “the archetype of an inclined plane” – that keep the book worth reading. Paolini might not be a very good writer of political intrigue, but he’s an outstanding world-builder.

There are some interesting worldview touches sprinkled throughout the entire series. “Eragon” briefly mentions the beliefs of Eragon’s fellow villagers (a kind of primitive animism), while “Eldest” highlights the atheism of the elves. The polytheistic dwarves get their turn in “Brisingr” – culminating with what seems to be the manifestation of a deity at a dwarven coronation ceremony. In “Inheritance,” the spotlight turns to rebel leader Nasuada’s monotheism. Unfortunately, these elements never get the development they deserve. They’re thrown in as offhanded references rather than plot touchstones, which may unintentionally reflect the series’ humanistic tone. By the end, Eragon adopts a sort of loose agnosticism – preferring to live a long life and die peacefully rather than pursue the eternal life offered by faith. It’s never quite clear where exactly Paolini stands on matters of religion and spirituality. (Some readers may wish to note that there’s a ton of magic and pseudo-occultism throughout the series, but it’s never portrayed as an alternative worldview system).

Objectionable content comes in the form of sustained fantasy violence (often bloody) and some nightmarish torture sequences. (If you don’t know what a degloving injury is, rest assured, you will after “Inheritance”). It’s certainly more graphic than other young adult fantasy, but probably wouldn’t run afoul of a PG-13 rating. This is not “The Hunger Games,” and the combat here packs far less of a punch. There’s no sexual content to speak of, and only one or two mild profanities.

If, like me, you’ve been reading Paolini’s novels from a young age, you owe it to yourself to pick up “Inheritance.” “Brisingr” might have been a letdown, but “Inheritance” is a fine conclusion to a relatively strong series. Sure, it’s flawed – pretty badly in some respects – but it has a lot to recommend it nonetheless. By the end, I was thoroughly enjoying “Inheritance” – once it defied my expectations, I was content to sit back and enjoy the ride. Adult fans of fantasy will likely find Paolini’s work deficient and derivative, but longtime fans will find much to like here.

It’s not “Harry Potter,” nor is it “The Hunger Games.” But it’s still pretty good.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
A surprisingly strong conclusion to a long-running epic.

Published in: on November 17, 2011 at 3:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Movie Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean – On Stranger Tides”

When I heard they were making a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I winced. I didn’t think there was any way the filmmakers could recover from the debacle that was “At World’s End” – and considering that Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom were being jettisoned from this installment, things didn’t look good for Captain Jack. (I’d also read the supposed source material – Tim Powers’ 1987 pirate novel “On Stranger Tides” – and was not impressed). Yet I still held out hope for the franchise…and I knew I’d be seeing it anyway, no matter how bad it was.

It seems that my faith has been rewarded. “On Stranger Tides,” while still not as good as the original, is vastly superior to both “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End.” Part four manages to recapture the zest of “Curse of the Black Pearl,” turning what could have been a disaster into a very serviceable summer adventure.

“On Stranger Tides” begins with Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) escaping from royal custody in London. Shortly thereafter, he meets up with old flame Angelica (Penelope Cruz), hoping to assemble a crew to search for the Fountain of Youth. He is subsequently shanghaied and pressed into the service of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), Angelica’s father. A three-way race for the Fountain begins, as both British and Spanish forces pursue Blackbeard. In order for the Fountain’s ritual of immortality to properly work, however, several ingredients are required: the silver chalices of conquistador Ponce de Leon, and the tear of a mermaid. The quest for these elements – as well as for the Fountain itself – drives the plot.

It all sounds unbelievably hokey – and it certainly is. But the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise succeeds because of its sheer outrageousness…and its strongest moments come when it fully embraces its action-comedy tone. Many of the problems in the most recent installments (parts 2 and 3) stem from an unwillingness to accept the series’ inherent ridiculousness. These movies shouldn’t be taken seriously, and too much melodrama invariably leads to disastrous filmmaking. “On Stranger Tides” works because it tosses out so many of the plot elements that failed in parts 2 and 3. Gone are the constantly shifting allegiances, laughably overdone mythology, and gargantuan CGI set pieces. This fourth installment is a cleaner, smoother film that recaptures some of the charm of the original.

After somewhat disappointing performances in “Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End,” Johnny Depp is back in fine fettle as Jack Sparrow. The addition of a love interest (Angelica) is a great help here – it allows Jack to display more roguish charm, rather than serve as an awkward third wheel to the Will/Elizabeth relationship. Depp and costar Cruz have strong chemistry, which makes their love-hate relationship an effective plot device. And while Ian McShane’s Blackbeard isn’t as strong a villain as Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), he’s still a valid antagonist for Jack.

The worldview of the Pirates of the Caribbean films has always been somewhat problematic. The first several films of the series affirmed that both virtue and vice are fundamental aspects of the human condition (essentially, humans do not need salvation, but must simply come to terms with their own inner “pirates”). A strongly postmodern view of ethics (as purely situational) pervaded all three movies, especially “At World’s End.”

Notably, “On Stranger Tides” finally introduces a moral center for the series. The Christian faith of missionary Philip Swift (a former prisoner of Blackbeard) is portrayed in a remarkably positive light – his views on forgiveness, love, and compassion translate into praiseworthy actions. His Christianity isn’t mocked; rather, it’s treated with surprising graciousness and respect. Though Jack Sparrow and company are still “scoundrels to the core,” they don’t ridicule Philip’s convictions.

On a slightly different level, all four films in the series have reflected some aspect of an eternal theme: man’s struggle against death. While a Spanish commander proclaims boldly, “Only God can grant eternal life, not this pagan water,” none of the four films offer a clear perspective on this concept. While any sense of absolute truth is ambiguous at best, this element certainly does make for some interesting talking points.

Objectionable content is primarily found in the form of frequent double entendres (mostly between Jack and Angelica), some scantily clad mermaids, and a heaping helping of adventure violence. It earns its PG-13 rating, but isn’t any more objectionable than previous installments.

Should you see it?

If you (like me) have seen all three previous films, “On Stranger Tides” might just restore your faith in the franchise. It’s much more fun than the bloated, convoluted second and third installments, and it succeeds as a rousing summer action movie. If you’re looking for a deep, complex story with nuanced characters, “On Stranger Tides” probably isn’t your best bet.

But if ye’ve been waitin’ for a rollicking sea yarn, ye’ll find much to like here.

VERDICT: 7.5/10
A surprisingly strong fourth installment in the aging “Pirates” franchise.

Published in: on June 2, 2011 at 3:48 pm  Comments (1)  

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