Last night I finished Inheritance, the fourth and final volume of Christopher Paolini’s young adult fantasy adventure series of the same name (but more commonly known by the name of the first book and main character, Eragon). I enjoyed the book—it’s fast-moving, epic, and well-written. But I find myself feeling vaguely unsatisfied, and trying to identify the source of my dissatisfaction.
The book feels very much like many other final books of epic fantasy series: an action-packed thrill ride toward a looming conclusion. It follows our protagonists (primarily Eragon, but also to a lesser extent his cousin Roran and his dragon Saphira) through a series of increasingly difficult challenges—largely pitched battles in their effort to help the Rebel Alliance, er, the Varden unseat the Big Bad Boss, the Dark Lord Voldemort, er, Sith Lord Darth Vader, er, Chuckles, the Evil Piggy, er, King Galbatorix who awaits them in his lair in the city of Urubaen. While the structure of the plot definitely hews to the classic Hero Journey laid out by Joseph Campbell (among others—and you have to know that I think that this is a good thing!), it also contains some wonderful original elements. The whole 880-page story practically pulses with urgency as our heroes face one life-or-death struggle after another, each a bit more dire than the last. At last, Eragon defeats Galbatorix in a satisfying and unexpected manner while Roran helps to defeat the king’s army outside. The heroes live happily ever after, though not without a few surprises: The End. Good stuff, right? So why do I feel as if I just had a sixpack of TAB? It isn’t Paolini’s prose style, which has grown in leaps and bounds over the eight years since the first book’s publication. (He was famously—and depressingly—fifteen when he started writing the series. Eesh.) He always had an ear for language and a sense of how to write compelling action, but now the scenes seem to be truly his own. No longer do you feel as if you can tell what he was reading the night before he wrote a particular section, as you could in the first two books. (There are scenes and tropes early in the series that are lifted past the point of homage from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Dragonriders of Pern, the Earthsea books—and those are just the ones I recognized. Heck, my daughters both still stumble over the main character’s name; half of the time, they call him Aragorn.) The characterizations, which were always pretty good, if a bit archetypal, have gotten stronger and more complex. But still: TAB. Why? As someone who’s working on his own YA adventure series, not to mention someone who is kind of fascinated with narrative in and of itself, I find myself worrying at this question quite a lot. I think that there are a couple of reasons that I felt this way. Perhaps it’s a certain amount of Hero Journey overload. Mind, I just finished and enjoyed Mastiff, the finale of Tamora Pierce’s Bekka Cooper trilogy, which has a very similar structure. Still, Paolini’s book follows the outline so assiduously…. Part of it, I think, is that the battles get old. The book opens with a series of three sieges, in each of which Eragon, Saphira, Roran and Co. risk their lives, but ultimately destroy the resistance of Galbatorix’s troops. Each sequence is compelling on its own, but a sense of battle fatigue sets in. This is not lessened by the fact that Eragon and his main fighting partner, the beguiling and deadly elf princess, Anya (who definitely isn’t a Chekhov refugee—no whining here, she gets things done) so totally overmatch the human soldiers whom they are fighting. The two of them against a castle full of Galbatorix’s troops is a huge mismatch—in Eragon and Anya’s favor. Though each of these battles serves its own narrative purpose, and though Paolini describes them well, it gets a bit old watching Aragorn crush yet another courtyard full of poor SoBs -- mixed in with a number of honest to goodness villains. About halfway through the book, even Eragon bemoans the fact that he's killed so many hundreds of Galbatorix's troops. But it doesn't save him or us from the tedium. Some of the problems were unavoidable, the corners a writer paints him- or herself into by releasing the first book before the last is written. I sighed in sympathy when at the end of the first battle he finally introduced the weapon that would allow Eragon and Co. to kill Galbatorix's dragon Shruikan. It's cheating to introduce Chekhov's Gun in the freaking fourth act; but I do understand that he must have figured out what needed to be introduced only after the first three books were already out. Still. When it literally galloped into the story, it felt like a bit of a Dauthdaert ex Machina. Another problem is Galbatorix's actions. Not his character: when we finally meet him, he's a wonderfully compelling, apparently rational human being; it's nice to see a Dark Lord who doesn't advertise (except that the whole Empire is his advertisement, of course). But his behavior... He's clearly read the Evil Overlord List, but I'm not sure how well he learned from it. He lurks in his capital, waiting for Eragon to come to him so that he can force the boy to join him when he could (we are told) easily crush the Varden and subvert Eragon's will to his own if he wanted. It's as if he's played too many video games and thinks, Okay, I'm the final boss. I must stay in my throne room and wait for the hero to assail me. The actions that he in fact does take are occasionally bizarre except insofar as they drive the plot. He risks his main surviving helpers, Eragon's half-brother Murtagh and his dragon Thorn, to attack the heart of the Varden's camp and kidnap the Varden's leader, Nasuada. Why? Um... To break the spirit of Eragon and the Varden? Maybe? Actually, it just ticks them off, as Galbatorix should have known it would. (We find out that Murtagh pleaded that Nasuada not be killed. Why? Um.) Mind, the scenes from Nasuada's point of view are wonderfully creepy--if you can stand seeing someone tortured. Nasuada was always one of my favorite characters in the series--the only weapons she's got are her own intelligence and resolve and she uses them well. But still, the only reason for kidnapping her seems to be.... Oh, yeah, this brings up another problem. The romantic themes. Epic fantasy tends to be a hard genre to marry well to romance. Tolkien's love stories were awful—except for Eowyn's crush on Aragron, which was nicely done but painful. Rowling's books had to have a romantic element; I mean, how could you write a series about a bunch of teens whose central theme was Love (well, and Death) and not include it? And she obviously managed pretty well, but I don't think you'll find to many folks really got into the romance angle of the books who felt 100% satisfied with the ending of the books, no matter what their preferred pairing was. In these books, there have been three Great Loves: Eragon and his hopeless infatuation with Anya, who considers him all but a child; Roran and Katrina, whom he pursues literally all of the way across the continent to rescue from the evil Ra'zac; and... Murtagh and Nasuada (well, four, if you include Brom and Eragon's mom). Where the heck did that last one come from? At first I thought Paolini was playing around with Stockholm Syndrome or something, but no: Nasuada's inner strength shames Murtagh into becoming a better man. Feh. And then, at the end of the books? Well, Roran and Katrina are headed home with their new baby boy to Palancar Valley. Nice, though we've hardly seen Katrina for the entire book, except to remind us that she's really pregnant. But stays with the army anyway. Nasuada and Katrina? Um. Murtagh flies off, seeking to find himself again, while Nasuada settles in to the job of ruling the empire. And Eragon and Arya? Um. Nothing. They sigh at each other a lot. They have finally said how much they want to be together. Their dragons mate, for goodness sake. And what do they do? Each follows his/her fate in an opposite direction—she to rule the elves (somehow, it was okay for her to be a dragon rider and a monarch at the same time, but it simply wasn't possible for Eragon; while he takes the newly found cache of dragon eggs literally off the edge of the map because "there's no place for the dragon riders to live in Alagaesia." Say what? This is a country that has been described as having huuuuuuuuge quantities of open space. Plains. Mountains. Islands. Okay, so dragons are big and require a lot of food, and nice cliffs and caves and stuff. But really? And he's Never Coming Back. All of this because of a fortune told to him in the first book by Angela the Herbalist (one of my other favorite characters). Here's the problem with prophecies in a serial book. If you're going to foreshadow the ending early on, you had better work pretty damned hard to make sure that the final living out of that prophecy is both inevitable but unexpected, or it will be unsatisfying, as this was. He just... leaves. The End. When Frodo leaves at the end of Return of the King, it is a perfect but awful conclusion to his story. Tolkien, a veteran of World War I, knew that even the victors can't always come home. Sam returns to the Shire and fulfills his potential: married, successful, happy. Frodo fades. But this? I'm hoping that (as he implies) he's going to write more here, because the characters are lovely and the world interesting, even if the main story line has been exhausted. Hey, none of Le Guin's Earthsea books springs directly out of the others, but that does't stop them from being a fabulous series. Because to spend 2500 pages or so building up this huge romantic tension between Eragon and Arya and resolve it with him sailing off into the sunset? Feh. TAB. And one other thing that bothered me, now that I'm thinking about it. Angela. There's this enormous mystery about just who she is that's been built up over the four books. There are some wild hints that are thrown out during Inheritance, making you wonder whether she's mortal, let alone human.... But no. We never find out. Any huge series is going to have loose ends. But this one irked me. I'm making it sound like I hated the book. I didn't--I enjoyed it. I read the last third of it in a single sitting. I liked the book and the series. But that doesn't stop me from feeling as if there were some very real flaws that kept it from being Diet Coke, let alone The Real Thing. Read it? What did you think?