Monday, September 19, 2022

Byzantium! by Keith Topping

 

Keith Topping is an author whose absolute best work had been with cowriter Martin Day.  The Devil Goblins of Neptune was the perfect way to open the Past Doctor Adventures and The Hollow Men is a fascinating horror story, but after those two books he stopped working with Martin Day and his first solo novel, The King of Terror, was incredibly forgettable, building itself around one particular cliché joke from Douglas Adams and playing it straight.  His second solo novel, Byzantium!, has a similar premise, taking a fairly comedic story and turning it into a more serious riff.  The Romans is Dennis Spooner’s second Doctor Who story and the first story to be played as an all out farce.  While there is certainly danger, Ian is sold into slavery and Barbara accidentally catches the eye of the lecherous Emperor Nero, it is all presented with this air of bawdy comedy so Keith Topping decides to do a serious take on the Roman Empire under Nero, sets the story in Byzantium, and plays it essentially straight while still being a prequel to The Romans.  Where Byzantium! perhaps falls down the most is the fact that it is a prequel to The Romans and so is inextricably linked to that story’s format, structure, and tone while Topping makes the novel a novel with very little humor.  Topping has clearly put in a lot of time to research Byzantium circa 64 CE and the rise and spread of Christianity specifically surrounding the Gospel of Mark, the first of the Gospels in the current Biblical canon to be written.  He splits up the characters into their own subplots, just like in The Romans, though here everyone is on their own and there isn’t the comedic sequences of the just misses of characters meeting each other.  The cover is especially evocative with the crucifixion as a form of punishment being something Topping attempts to analyze.

 

As this is a book full of subplots, it’s one that is essentially held together by how the point of view characters are characterized, and sadly that is a mixed bag.  There is a scene in the TARDIS very early on where this is exemplified, Ian and Barbara are pretty okay in the scene, slowly simmering the sexual tension between them while Ian makes an odd joke, but the Doctor and Vicki are both almost flanderized.  The Doctor is incredibly crochety, brushing off Vicki’s concerns and outright attempting to leave the time period out of fear that Barbara might try to change things, despite having gone on other adventures with Ian and Barbara, both of whom understand they cannot change history.  Vicki on the other hand is portrayed as a petulant child, definitely younger than the 15-year-old age typically inferred from the casting documents and reflection on the character as a replacement for Susan.  Here for a lot of the book she feels too young and too unintelligent, with Topping thinking that because she’s from the future it means she must not have common sense about history, despite the Doctor, Ian, and Barbara all mentioning how they teach each other about the places they visit.  Byzantium! is a book that really does take advantage of its historical setting which is really where the book shines, it’s an examination of a culture from a purely historical viewpoint while attempting to distance itself from its farcical predecessor.

 

There is this especially beautiful scene where Ian shows Vicki several constellations and they have this amazing discussion about life and pollution.  That’s also what follows the Doctor’s plot in the book as he deals with the translation of the Gospel of Mark, where Topping doesn’t have the Doctor take a religious stance so to speak, but a stance towards the artistic value of the gospel which I think is perhaps the best approach.  It’s also here where the closest Topping gets to the more mischievous First Doctor, as he delights in running circles around others.  Meanwhile Ian is also put into a situation where he comes into contact with early Christians so we explore his view of religion which is one of tolerance to deal with some of the fear of persecution that could happen in this historical setting.  Though this doesn’t last with his best bits in the book being whenever we explore his past along with the prologue and epilogue which reveals he and Barbara have married and had a son which is equally nice.  Barbara also is really well characterized, however, she doesn’t actually get a whole lot to do in the book.

 

Overall, Byzantium! is a book that has a lot to love about it.  Keith Topping has done a lot of research and really spends much of the book using the TARDIS team to explore the history in often brutal detail.  It may be a book that rub some the wrong way but unlike say Rags, there isn’t this contempt from the author for the era it is in, just instances of poor characterization perhaps due to Topping’s own writing style and personal preferences.  It’s certainly a good read though it doesn’t quite go to that threshold of being a great read.  7/10.

Friday, September 16, 2022

The Inheritance Cycle: Brisingr by: Christopher Paolini

Brisngr is a frustrating book.  The third installment of The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, it was with this book the decision was taken to extend the trilogy to a quartet as Paolini found there was too much material to complete in one book.  This is a decision on which I am a bit conflicted.  While overall the ending of this book is clearly one that found a natural endpoint as it builds to a final battle where Eragon can use his forged sword essentially for the first time, and the beginning is a rescue mission to find Katrina, Roran’s betrothed, and her father Sloan, who betrayed their entire villains in Eldest, the middle of the book is Paolini at his most meandering.  While Eldest showed great improvement in writing and began to juggle multiple plot lines, it is Brisingr which takes a step back and is unable to give many of its plot lines satisfactory arcs.  There are subplots and ideas that run their course, sure, and some of them have some interesting pieces of character work, but they feel more episodic in nature and not really developing towards the overall plot outside of tenuous connections.  For instance, there is a sequence where Elva, the girl Eragon blessed in the first book is healed from her affliction and has a great character moment where she strikes out on her own to control herself and train under Angela.  She then does not appear again for the rest of the book nor does it actually impact the plot in any way.  That doesn’t mean it’s a badly written sequence, far from it, it’s quite interesting and Eragon and Saphira’s reactions to Elva are great, but it does feel inconsequential.

 

This is exacerbated by Paolini attempting to write a narrative that is politically driven instead of the more action driven narratives of the previous two books.  Brisingr’s plot is very much allowing our three main point of view characters to have their own political struggle, Eragon among the dwarfs, Nasuada among the Varden, and Roran with his wife in an attempt to increase the book’s page count, since the actual plot progression really isn’t there.  The plot in this one only really progresses through continuous sequences of exposition with sporadic musings on politics and philosophy.  Eragon’s plot with the dwarfs while clearly intended to have the reader follow the ponderous nature of the dwarfs making decision, feels like it loses much of its tension, especially since while there is always the threat of King Galbatorix and Murtagh (who doesn’t ever actually appear in this book).  The plodding goes on for over 700 pages without any real sense of conclusion to come by the end of the book, okay there is a battle in the end which goes into a siege that is nice, and the ending is suitably bleak with a major character death, but it doesn’t feel like there is really any impact.  Nasuada’s plot also feels less important than in Eldest making her sections of the book feeling more like an afterthought from Paolini to be a bridge for things.  Roran’s sequence is perhaps the closest Paolini gets to a coherent arc, mainly because Roran is continually struggling with authority and the corruption inherent in any group of armed forces as well as the fears for his new wife and their child.  There is a sequence where he is whipped for insubordination and then given command in a power play by Nasuada which is perhaps the capstone to his character arc and the actual pain he is willing to endure to save the ones he loves.

 

This is contrast in Eragon’s plot which has several brilliant moments, especially near the very beginning and ending of the book, but the middle is lacking.  His interactions with Sloan and ponderance on the nature of a Dragon Rider is the first piece of truly interesting writing from Paolini about the morality of killing someone evil.  It continues on his ideas about the Urgals having their own culture and existence and not being inherently evil, especially as Sloan, a human, is the one person Eragon decides he cannot live.  Paolini also makes the proper decision to not have Sloan in the end turn to the good, he is left blind and alone, not even knowing really if his daughter is alive and honestly that’s something I hope Inheritance doesn’t actually pick up on as it’s a perfectly good ending for the character.  This could also have been Eragon’s actual motivation for the rest of the book, but it feels as if it’s dropped by the end and is not tied into the forging of his sword.  The forging sequence is done though magic and does a riff on the trope of forging a sword from a meteorite which has been done in fantasy since the dawn of time, but it's still an interesting sequence for character building (and making it a flaming sword just plays into the rule of cool) and there is an interesting exploration of the magic system here.

 

Sadly, Brisingr on the whole is perhaps not worth the sum of its parts.  Paolini is definitely more developed in prose and clearly has an end goal in mind for The Inheritance Cycle, but that end goal is something that will be very difficult to see to the end since it’s taking the book too long to do very little.  There are sequences that are genuinely good, one or two that you could argue is even great, but it is a book which could have used at least another draft if it wished to not feel like a step back to the quality of Eragon. 5/10.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The Dragon Reborn by: Robert Jordan: Aviendha, Bain, and Chiad (Chapters 37 to 40)

 

““My name is Aviendha,” the Aiel woman said, “of the Nine Valley’s sept of the Taardad Aiel.”  Her face was as flat and expressionless as her voice.  “I am Far Dareis Mai, a Maiden of the Spear.”  She paused for a moment, studying them.  “Youhave not the look in your faces, but we saw the rings.  In your lands, you have women much like our Wise Ones, the women called Aes Sedai.  Are you women of the White Tower, or not?”” – The Dragon Reborn, p. 432.

 

As mentioned in the previous essay, The Dragon Reborn is where we get our first real look at the Aiel and the Aiel culture.  The Aiel were mentioned in The Eye of the World and The Great Hunt, especially with the idea that Rand looks like an Aielman due to his height and fiery red hair, the term that’s culturally used by those who are not Aiel, but Jordan has made this effort to make them the other in the narrative.  The introduction of an Aiel character is one locked in a cage, immediately putting this image in the mind of the reader that they are violent.  They are something the culture fears, something that has subtly been planted in the mind of the reader with references to the Waste where they live, and references to their warrior like nature.  This isn’t explicitly evil, but it is done in a way to make the reader wary of them as a culture, as our young and inexperienced characters are often wary of different cultures.  Egwene in particular becomes more wary of other cultures since her torture in The Great Hunt, is terrified when captured by a group of Cairhienan slavers who are taking advantage of the civil war that has broken out since the death of the previous king in The Great Hunt (the one that Thom Merrilin most likely murdered in revenge for Dena’s death).  Okay so she is able to heal Elayne who is injured in the capture and escape and Nynaeve becomes angry enough to burn the Fades which their captors are selling them to death.  This is balefire which has already been set up as writing people out of the Pattern and while Jordan’s prose is beautifully terrifying and the character buildup between Egwene, Elayne, and Nynaeve, it is the fact that Aviendha, an Aiel who had already met them on the road, had followed them, using some of her own people to attempt a rescue leading to two Aiel deaths.

 

It is at this point where Egwene can start letting go and trusting Aviendha as a person instead of what had been rather spiky narration towards her and the Aiel.  With Aviendha are Bain and Chiad who are first sisters, a piece of Aiel culture describing sisters but it is mentioned here that Aiel women can be bonded to become sisters if they wish, something that will come up again later but it is a piece of culture shock as Elayne asks this “How can you become first-sisters? Either you have the same mother, or you do not…All I know about the Maidnes of the Spear comes from what my mother has told me.  I know you fight in battle and don’t care for men, but no more than that.” – The Dragon Reborn, p. 435.  Now while this isn’t necessarily explicit in the text here at least, it is clear that this type of close relationship, especially in terms of people becoming a sort of symbolic family, is perhaps one of the first attempts by Jordan to include LGBT characters in The Wheel of Time even if other attempts have been through coding through coding, Elayne even referencing the Red Ajah who have more explicit lesbian coding in the way they operate.  Bain and Chiad being the first we see, however, bring this to mind since they are explicitly   No, it isn’t handled the absolute best, especially since we don’t actually get a point of view from Bain and Chiad, but it is something that is there and important for this nearly thirty year old book to have included.  Bain and Chiad are established as badass warrior women on the level of Aviendha, as all three are Maidens of the Spear and have explicitly sworn off love of a man as they are wedded to the spear.

 

There are also some very subtle cultural clashes with this meeting which makes all characters deeper.  Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne lying about being full Aes Sedai, something the Aiel equate with being a Wise One, find it odd that they must guard each other’s back as no one would dare attack a Wise One, and if they were the Wise One could defend themselves.  This adds a bit of individualism among Aiel while among our trio of Accepted there is more of a collective help inherent in one another.  This culture shock is also not necessarily a bad thing, it does end with the two parties agreeing to travel together as we get the explanation that dreams from the Wise Ones are leading the Aiel towards Tear which is where He Who Comes with the Dawn will be declaring himself.  There is also one last chapter with Mat and Thom find themselves in an inn in Cairhien where they meet Aludra, the leader of the Illuminators guild, who gives Mat fireworks, something that is far more dangerous than anyone can ever know since this is Mat Cauthon.  It’s a chapter that deepens the Cairhien conflict as Mat heads the opposite direction towards Caemlyn but Aludra will be very important later, much much later, and the establishment of fireworks in this world also establishes gunpowder.  It’s also just full of wit that helps the reader become more acclimated to Mat as a character.  Now sadly it is the only Mat chapter for now, the next grouping going back to Perrin and his plotline which is important, but after that we will be back to Mat for a bit before one last meeting of our Emond’s Field Five leads into the climax so stay tuned.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Exodus, Revelation!, and Genesis! by: Alan McKenzie adapted and with art by: John Ridgway and letters by: Annie Halfacree

 

Exodus and Revelation! are written by Alan McKenzie with art by John Ridgway and lettering by Annie Halfacree.  Genesis! is written and drawn by John Ridgway from a story by Alan McKenzie and lettering by Annie Halfacree.  They were released in Doctor Who Magazine issues 108, 109, and 110 (December 1985, January, and February 1986) and are reprinted in their original form in Doctor Who: The World Shapers by Panini Books.

 

The World Shapers starts like Voyager ends, with a multi-part story with individual issue titles but no overall title.  Exodus, Revelation!, and Genesis!, are three issues which end Alan McKenzie’s time with the magazine just before everything changed and several years would be spent alternating writers until Alan Barnes and Scott Gray came in to tell the adventures of the Eighth Doctor in comic form.  This is also a story that involves the writer, Alan McKenzie, leaving partway through so artist John Ridgway has to take over for finishing the third and final installment.  Each of the three installments take their names from the books of the bible beginning with the second book, final, and then ending with the first for some odd reason, however, this really doesn’t have a whole lot of significance to the themes or really anything in the stories.  Exodus is up first and opens with a very good start, mainly being confined to the TARDIS on which the Doctor is working, Peri is looking for somewhere to store some clothes, and Frobisher hates being the Doctor’s assistant as he has to pass him tools.  A familial refugee from Sylvanair phase through the TARDIS wall and are come across by Peri and the Doctor promises (after some convincing) to give them some food and send them on their way.  The idea of a planet whose crops are failing while the ruling and educated classes do nothing for those beneath them is a perfect setup for a small Doctor Who story, the only thing really not working is the Doctor’s mood being much closer to the version seen in The Twin Dilemma than the last story televised, Revelation of the Daleks.  Peri and Frobisher play off each other very well and it works nicely to setup the story with what’s essentially an act one in the three act structure.  8/10.

 

Revelation! fares even better with the Doctor, Peri, and Frobisher travelling to Sylvanair where one Professor Verdeghast is strangled from behind, the TARDIS materializing in the same locked room with the professor just as people are coming to discover the body.  This is an issue set in a castle where a Captain Krogh takes pity on the Doctor, Peri, and Frobisher letting them, mainly the Doctor investigate with the other doctors and professors in the castle.  Sadly there is one thing holding this mystery back, mainly that McKenzie doesn’t actually do anything with Peri and Frobisher in the issue, they’re just kind of there while we follow the Doctor which is something that doesn’t bode well for the strip going forward as having a three person TARDIS team in a small comic strip (page wise) means that there is a good chance that this will become a recurring issue.  Ridgway’s art is perhaps its best in this issue in particular as there is some body horror with a scarred professor used as a red herring for the real villain of the piece and the big reveal that it is the Cybermen behind the death of the professor and other scientists in this castle looks beautiful.  The 1980s Cyberman design really does lend itself well to the style of the comic strip especially with some intricacies that Ridgway’s pencils and inks really come together.  9/10.

 

The story concludes in Genesis! which is sadly the weakest part.  The story shifts focus to a standard Cyberman story where it is revealed that a Cyber-ship crashed on Sylvanair and Dr. Sovak, an old and frail scientist, has been working tirelessly to amass an army of Cybermen, the implication being that the other scientists have been converted as well as peasants who have been disappearing.  The actual Cybermen story is nice for a single issue while Peri and Frobisher get a few good lines but are still absent (though the final twist is Frobisher is stuck as a penguin for the foreseeable future).  The Cybermen are at least better portrayed here than they were in Attack of the Cybermen.  The problem comes with the complete dropping of the plotline of the Doctor helping the regular people of Sylvanair which was the inciting incident, it only getting a throwaway mention at the end.  This really takes away from what could have been the perfect end to a prolific editor/writer’s era but it kind of drags things down from brilliant to just a decent enough outing.  Luckily with Ridgway taking over scripting duties for this issue there aren’t any problems with the art, it is intricate and again plays nicely off the body horror of the Cybermen.  7/10.

 

Overall, Exodus, Revelation!, and Genesis! may be a story of diminishing returns despite starting out brilliantly but it does close an era nicely and manages to continue with the Sixth Doctor’s Doctor Who Magazine comic run’s genuinely great era that deserves the place it holds in fan opinion.  8/10.

The Dragon Reborn by: Robert Jordan: Faile and Gaul (Chapters 33 to 36)

 

““Well,” she said after a moment, “I never expected my travels to take me back to Illian so soon a this.”  Her voice was high and she had a flat way of speaking, but it was not unpleasant.  “You are going to Illian, are you not?”  He tightened his mouth.  “Don’t sulk,” she said.  “You left quite a mess back there, you and that Aielman between you.  The uproar was just beginning when I left.”  “You did not tell them?” he said in surprise.  “The townsfolk think the Aielman chewed through the chain, or broke it with his bare hands.  They had not decided which when I left.”  She made a sound suspiciously like a giggle.  “Orban was quite loud in his disgust that his wounds would keep him from hunting down the Aielman personally.”” – The Dragon Reborn, p. 402.

 

This has been a four chapter sequence I have been a bit worried two discuss since it establishes two very important characters for The Wheel of Time and Perrin’s story in particular.  Zarine Bashere, more commonly referred to as Faile and Perrin’s primary love interest, the falcon referred to in Min’s prophecies watches as Perrin frees an Aiel from a cage.  I will discuss the Aiel later in this essay and the importance that will play as well as the Pattern twisting events, but let’s take a minute to discuss Faile.  Her place in the general fandom is often one of immediate dislike due to several plotlines involving the character, especially one plotline in particular which spans multiple books, as well as how her relationship with Perrin develops.  Robert Jordan as an author is rather weak at writing relationships, many of which come out of nowhere and can feel as if he is just pairing people off to pair people off.  Luckily the romance is mostly not one aspect of The Wheel of Time central to its themes and plot development, but that doesn’t mean with fourteen very long books it doesn’t come up often.  With this preamble, you would think that Faile’s introduction was terrible, but honestly it isn’t.  Jordan actually does a great job of setting up who the character is, starting as a mysterious woman in a tavern before we get some description of who she is as she stows away on the ship, its what the above conversation is taken from and honestly it’s a really interesting one.

 

She’s unsure of herself and putting on this false bravado, immediately changing her name from Mandarb to Faile upon being laughed at by Perrin.  “He could not stop the guffaw that burst out of him.  Those tilted eyes regarded him with heat.  “I will teach you something, farmboy.”  Her voice remained level.  Barely.  “In the Old Tongue, Mandarb means ‘blade.’  It is a name worthy of a Hunter of the Horn!”  He managed to get his laughter under control, and hardly wheezed at all as he pointed to the rope pen between the masts. “You see that black stallion??  His name is Mandarb.” The heat went out of her eyes, and spots of color bloomed on her cheeks.  “Oh.  I was born Zarine Bashere, but Zarine is no name for a Hunter.  In the stories, Hunters have names like Rogosh Eagle-Eye.” She looked so crestfallen that he hastened to say, “I like the name Zarine.  It suits you.”” – The Dragon Reborn, p. 405.  This is an almost perfect example of a meet cute, yes some of Jordan’s chauvinism shows with Perrin declaring a girl couldn’t be a Hunter for the Horn which is a very odd character choice (and won’t be the only odd character choice for Perrin in the coming books), but it’s the start of a nice relationship between two people who are basically polar opposites yet can find some common ground and form a partnership.  We don’t get that development here, at least not yet since this is just a meet cute and Faile is just meant to be there, but it’s there.

 

This of course all happens because Perrin frees an Aiel from a cage in a sequence that is integral to who Perrin is.  There has already been a large sequence dedicated to Perrin coming upon a man who has gone mad due to being a Wolfbrother, giving into the animal, and this sequence with Gaul, who introduces himself thusly ““I have been in there since yesterday, wetlander.”  He sounded like Lan. Not that their voices or accents were anything alike, but the Aiel had the same unruffled coolness, that same calm sureness..  “It will take a moment for my legs to work.  I am Gaul, of the Imran sect of the Shaarad Aiel, wetlander.  I am Shae’en M’taal, A Stone Dog.  My water is yours.”” – The Dragon Reborn, p. 394.  Jordan’s introduction gives some perfect insight into Perrin, he doesn’t like seeing people caged as well as getting our first taste of Aiel culture.  While the Aiel are from the Waste, a desert region and as such Gaul is terrified of water, especially seeing people swim and bathe in a river, since he had never seen water in such quantity before.  Jordan calls to attention Gaul’s way of speaking and the idea of everyone not an Aiel being a wetlander, but not necessarily as a name which denotes being lesser in some way, just different based on the geography where they live.  There easily could have been an inherent superiority in terms of their culture, but Jordan avoids this by immediately creating a bond between Perrin and Gaul, something that is important for the next section of The Dragon Reborn which will introduce other Aiel characters.  What Jordan does to get us on Gaul’s side is also have Perrin free him from Whitecloaks in particular, characters we already know to be evil.  Gaul is searching for He Who Comes with the Dawn, the Aiel name for the Dragon Reborn, because the world and the Pattern is moving towards the Last Battle.

 

The idea of the Pattern moving things towards the Last Battle is something that occurs through the entire section.  Before arriving at the town where Gaul is being held, there are a sequence of towns where it is clear Rand has been due to the many things, good and bad, happening: a place where a spring provides new water after years of being dried up, juxtaposed with a town where crops are failing and the town is burning.  This is also where Perrin’s dreams return.  The wolf dream with Perrin reestablishes Ba’alzamon’s return to life while Lanfear declares dreams her domain, something very important to establish that the Forsaken not actually working together.  This dream is also important as it takes Perrin and makes him actually speak in depth with Moiraine about being a Wolfbrother, to calm his fears if he is channeling the One Power, something that he is not actually doing.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

The Slow Empire by: Dave Stone

 

The Slow Empire suffers from being the Eighth Doctor Adventures directly after The Year of Intelligent Tigers.  The Year of Intelligent Tigers was a masterpiece, full of beautiful prose and character work, fully establishing how the Doctor, Fitz, and Anji work as a team and creating conflicts especially in terms of who the Doctor has become and how withdrawn as a person he can be due to continually being disappointed with humanity.  The Slow Empire doesn’t do that.  The first indication of what kind of book The Slow Empire is going to be is looking at the author, Dave Stone.  Dave Stone is an author who I genuinely like.  His ideas are excellent and his prose can be utterly fascinating.  He has also written books like Burning Heart which is terrible.  Heart of TARDIS, his previous Doctor Who effort, wasn’t the worst thing he has written, but it was bogged down in references to The Simpsons of all things.  The Slow Empire, on the other hand, is a book whose plot succinctly put by a friend of mine only appears at the very beginning and very end of the novel.  This is a book that is about 250 pages of incredibly confusing prose where events happen, but they are narrated by a character who may or may not be the Spanish word for ham without an accent.  The plot involves creatures called Vortex Wraiths which inhabit the Time Vortex and there is also this Empire which doesn’t follow the regular rules of reality so Dave Stone can float from scene to scene with tenuous connections yet somehow it works.  This might be the most self-reflective Stone has been, with Jamon de la Rocas being an obvious self-insert for the author.

 

There are also several notes at the back of the novel where Stone places the punchlines to many of his jokes as well as even more worldbuilding, and yes The Slow Empire is a lot of worldbuilding.  Stone clearly is enjoying a lot of what he has created and nearly every page is riotous with laughter as the wit of a Dave Stone book is there.  But the plot is just not there and that is perhaps the book’s biggest problem.  As an experimental book, it’s an interesting idea to try and tell a story without a plot or really even characters, just interesting ideas playing around with time travel and a time without time travel.  Heck there is really some interesting bits that could be part of the Divergent Universe arc of the Big Finish Eighth Doctor Monthly Range Adventures which would only come out three years after this book is published.  This is also a book where one-third of the text is written in Comic Sans.  No, I am not kidding.  This professionally published and (hopefully) professionally edited novel written as the 47th in a series, is written and printed using Comic Sans.  I think that gives you enough of an idea of what madness Dave Stone has in store.

 

Overall, The Slow Empire is a book that isn’t going to work for everybody, heck it barely works for me, but it is Dave Stone at his perhaps most esoteric and as the final Doctor Who novel he would write (outside of the Bernice Summerfield novels and audio dramas with Big Finish) it’s definitely one to go out on.  6/10.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

The Inheritance Cycle: Eldest by: Christopher Paolini

 

The Inheritance Cycle began with a novel that wasn’t so much as bad but moreover suffering from being written by a teenager and thus relying on several earlier works for its plot and characters.  The second installment, Eldest, was written after Eragon had been picked up by Alfred A. Knopf for publication and Christopher Paolini had entered his twenties.  Knowing this going in brought some hope that Paolini would have evolved as an author and moved beyond a retelling of Star Wars.  Reading Eldest then became disappointing, since Paolini’s text begins to show some of the structural problems with the series due to basing the first novel so heavily on Star Wars and creating a magic system based around aspects of other novel’s magic systems.  This is a book where Eragon, our main character, spends the entire book on the same trajectory as Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, after an opening battle he travels to meet a wide teacher who will teach him in the ways of the world’s old mystic order, the teacher not being what Eragon and Saphira might expect, and after time spent training eventually going back to the resistance group where one final battle ends with a twist about Eragon’s parentage and the stakes are raised due to a great loss.  This decision from Paolini makes it so much of the novel falls down and becomes difficult to continue as the actual training is essentially what Eragon is doing for the majority of the page count.  While it isn’t terrible, it does bring the pacing of Eldest to an almost screeching halt, though there are some light spots.  Paolini does do a good enough job of exploring how Eragon is maturing as a person, learning about how life is interconnected and there is a particularly effective sequence where he vows to give up meat.  The actual teacher character is also essentially a stock character with the big twist being that he still is a Dragon Rider and there is another, older Dragon still alive.

 

This is where we get to some aspects of the novel that have aged quite poorly, mainly the way that Paolini writes romantic subplots.  There is a trope with fantasy novels (especially those written by men) where romantic subplots will just suddenly appear and it was there in Eragon with Eragon and Arya which continues here and gets especially annoying since the beats are following a fairly obvious formula but it also happens with Saphira and Glaedr, the other surviving dragon.  While Paolini does show both Eragon and Saphira as incredibly brash as characters they both continuously pursue partners who have made it very clear that the interest is not mutual.  Paolini does attempt to show both characters being in the wrong, Saphira especially, but it is a plot line that doesn’t really need to be there.  Eragon’s plot line of the book, however, does shine in one aspect, Paolini’s commentary against the ideas of biological essentialism being a thing in fantasy (outside of races created by dark magic).  In fantasy and especially Dungeons & Dragons, there are races such as dark elves which have been portrayed as having an implicitly evil morality.  This is something that players and readers have always had a predilection against, with perhaps the most famous D&D novel series being about a drow who is good.  There are also issues with racism wrapped into the trope due to coding with how orcs are often portrayed in fantasy (generally pre-2000s, however these tropes are not totally gone). Paolini in Eldest uses the Urgals, which are his orcs, as a point to go against this, while they are certainly a people based around war, they are not a monolith nor are implicitly allied with the Empire.  Eragon as a character has some moments of confronting his own prejudices, having to meet with an Urgal under a white flag late in the novel and enter his mind, sharing his life experiences.  It isn’t perfect and probably could have used more instances and direction to help Eragon develop, but it’s admirable for Paolini to include this in the book and as a point going forward.  It’s also contrasted with how Eragon spends much of the novel integrating and familiarizing himself with the culture of the elves, and to a lesser extent in the early chapters of the novel, the dwarves.  It does set him up to act as an ambassador to different cultures and first provides the possibility, however slim, of nonviolent solutions to conflict.  There’s also the twist with Murtagh becoming a villain with a dragon of his own, Thorn who is essentially a genetic experiment, but this almost comes as an afterthought as it is the twist of the climax and Paolini really doesn’t go into enough detail as to why Murtagh has switched sides, though it is almost implied to be part of torture done on Thorn to make him grow large.

 

There is also the buffer that as a novel, Eldest joins the rest of the epic fantasy genre by introducing multiple points of view.  Okay this is still a book aimed at a younger audience and as such it’s only two new points of view but they do allow subplots to happen outside of Eragon as a character.  They are both related to him and his character, but outside of being the inciting incident of one where he magically blesses a baby but screws up the language causing the child to age rapidly and become a prophet in her own right, he really doesn’t have influence upon them.  The one with the child is told through the viewpoint of Nasuada and is perhaps the shortest, she is now the leader of the Varden, elected after her father dies in the aftermath of Eragon.  It’s a nice parallel of having someone learn to lead in parallel to Eragon’s arc but this is something that doesn’t get as much time as it only comes up a couple of times in the book.  Roran, Eragon’s cousin, who was a minor character in Eragon comes home to find his father dead, cousin missing, and hometown soon to be under siege from the empire’s forces.  Roran as a character begins an arc of a man being forced to lead and eventually take his entire community to war throughout the book while pledging himself to his love.  While it plays around with a lot of classic fantasy tropes, it’s the first plot line that feels like it can at least stand on its own.  Yes it does follow the Hero’s Journey, but it doesn’t feel like rewriting Star Wars’ main plot beats.  There’s also already a love interest for Roran but the way he convinces those around him to stand up, fight, and eventually flee is quite compelling and by the time he meets up with the Varden at the end of the novel, meeting Eragon, the confrontation can actually put into contrast the changes the characters have undergone, both physical and mental.  He’s a character who has to grow and change and that makes the plotline the most interesting of the book.

 

Overall, Eldest is technically and in several aspects an improvement on Eragon and shows the seeds of Paolini being able to grow as an author and indeed there are plots that are actually really good and interesting.  They still are dealing in large part with the baggage of Eragon being setup on a world that’s already heavily influenced by the work of others without much to elevate it.  It’s better than Eragon but there is still a long way to go with the final two installments of The Inheritance Cycle to make it genuinely good.  5.5/10.