Doing a new thing! Namely, in-depth reviews that take apart books chapter by chapter. I guess technically it’s a deconstruction. I’ve decided to start with Eragon by Christopher Paolini, which I read before in high school, but that was so long ago I’ve forgotten most of the book. (Yeah, I’m super up-to-date on things.)
Eragon, Prologue: Shade of Fear
We’re not even a word in and already I’ve got problems with Paolini’s writing. Prologues are so unnecessary, especially when they’re so incredibly short like this one. (It’s a bit hard to tell how many pages it takes up, since I’m reading this on my Nook, but this section clearly isn’t very long.) If you want to set up the story with a suspenseful scene, great – just make it the first chapter. If it’s only a couple pages long, like in Eragon, merge it with the next chapter.
A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.
These are only the second and third sentences in the book. I told myself I was going to go easy on Paolini’s writing, because this is his first novel and he was pretty young when he wrote it, but I’m not even past the first paragraph and it’s already so bad. “Looks human” is one of the least descriptive passages I have ever read, especially considering that this guy is a recurring antagonist. Hair and eye color aren’t enough descriptors to give me a clear mental image. Is he thin or fat, muscular or scrawny, pale or dark? Does he have an angular face or chubby baby cheeks? Does he have an awesome beard? Is he wearing robes? Leather armor? Fishnets? How long is his hair? Does he have squinty eyes? For fuck’s sake, Paolini describes the guy’s sword in more detail than this! How hard is it to tell us what this guy looks like?
Around him shuffled twelve Urgals with short swords and round iron shields painted with black symbols. They resembled men with bowed legs and thick, brutish arms made for crushing. A pair of twisted horns grew above their small ears.
So… they’re orcs. You know, there’s no shame in admitting that your writing is influenced by Tolkien. He doesn’t have a monopoly on orcs any more than he does elves or dwarves – hell, the elves in this story are very clearly the Tolkien version that’s been used in fantasy literature for decades! Just say they’re orcs instead of making them out to be some “original” fantasy race!
Again, we get the “they look like humans only different” description. Amateur author or not, Paolini’s not being very creative here. We’ve got a little more detail here, but it’s still so vague that my brain tries to fill things in and I end up picturing the Urgals as Ogremon from Digimon.
Shades smells somebody coming and tells his minions to go and ambush them. I don’t know why, because they’re horrible at sitting quietly and waiting and Shades has to scold them – I’m sorry, hiss at them – to get them to shut up. After a bit the elves show up. There’s two guards and a lady, and they at least get some decent description here:
On the first horse was an elf with pointed ears and elegantly slanted eyebrows. His build was slim but strong, like a rapier. A powerful bow was slung on his back. A sword pressed against his side opposite a quiver of arrows fletched with swan feathers.
The last rider had the same fair face and angled features as the other. He carried a long spear in his right hand and a white dagger at his belt. A helm of extraordinary craftsmanship, wrought with amber and gold, rested on his head.
Between these two rode a raven-haired elven lady, who surveyed her surroundings with poise. Framed by long black locks, her deep eyes shone with a driving force. Her clothes were unadorned, yet her beauty was undiminished. At her side was a sword, and on her back a long bow with a quiver. She carried in her lap a pouch that she frequently looked at, as if to reassure herself that it was still there.
Better. Still kind of vague, but we get a clearer picture of the elves than Shades and his buddies. I’m also not sure how plain clothes would make a person look any less beautiful; nice clothing can certainly enhance beauty, but if you look good, wearing street clothes won’t change that.
Question: why are the words “Shade” and “Urgal” capitalized, but not “elf”? They’re all species names, right? So why aren’t elves special enough to earn a capital letter? Is this supposed to be some sort of clue? Are capital letters supposed to signify Bad Guys? Or did Christopher Paolini just want to make his new fantasy races special? I’d be more impressed by consistency in your narrative, Chris.
The guards switch places for … some reason, and they almost walk straight into the ambush when the wind changes, which freaks the horses out and alerts the elves to the presence of the Urgals. Elf Lady bolts, but Shades shoots her horse out from under her with magical fire and she’s forced to flee on foot – but only after her guards are killed. They don’t get off any shots or even get off their horses, they’re just shot down while she stares. Tell me, what was the point of traveling with guards when they’re pretty much useless? Was Elf Lady’s plan to have her Red Shirts distract the enemy while she escapes? Because that only works if (a) they’re able to fight long enough for her to get away, and (b) she runs before they’re killed, not after.
Shades sends the Urgals after her, then climbs up an outcropping of rock and starts setting sections of the forest on fire in order to trap her. Why would you do that? He doesn’t seem to want to kill her, and it’s pretty clear he wants whatever she’s carrying, so why would he trap her with fire, which is notorious for quickly getting out of control? One puff of wind in the wrong direction and everything he’s after goes up in smoke! Not to mention it seems pretty extreme and more than a little desperate. Shouldn’t the “trap them in a ring of fire” tactic be a last resort?
She skidded around and sped back to the trail. Black Urgal blood dripped from her sword, staining the pouch in her hand.
I’m not sure how the physics of this works. Either she’s holding the sword above the pouch with both hands in front of her, or she’s holding both the sword and the pouch in one hand. The former makes for some very awkward running, as you generally use your arms for balance; the latter would make it very difficult to hold on to either object, let alone fight without dropping anything.
Shades finally manages to corner the elf, but orders his lackeys to capture her instead of doing it himself. Which is a mistake, because Elf Lady pulls a blue stone out of the pouch and holds it up over her head in response.
A ball of red flame sprang from his hand and flew toward the elf, fast as an arrow. But he was too late. A flash of emerald light briefly illuminated the forest, and the stone vanished. Then the red fire smote her and she collapsed.
The Shade howled in rage and stalked forward, flinging his sword at a tree. It passed halfway through the trunk, where it stuck, quivering. He shot nine bolts of energy from his palm – which killed the Urgals instantly – then ripped his sword free and strode to the elf.
What exactly was the point of killing all of his remaining minions? Granted, they’re not particularly useful, but in this case it wasn’t their fault their quarry got away – unless they have even more powerful magic than Shades over there and just forgot to use it, there’s nothing they could have done to stop her. And throwing his sword into a tree in the process makes Shades look less like a badass and more like a whiny toddler who’s just been told he has to go to bed. This guy isn’t scary, he’s boring.
Disgust curled his lip before he turned back to the unconscious elf. Her beauty, which would have entranced any mortal man, held no charm for him. He confirmed the stone was gone, then retrieved his horse from its hiding place among the trees. After tying the elf onto the saddle, he mounted the charger and made his way out of the woods.
He quenched the fires in his path but left the rest to burn.
Well, now we know he’s a bad guy – he’s letting the forest burn to the ground!
Also, didn’t the elves’ horses spook when they smelled him? Shouldn’t his own horse be freaking out as well? I guess it’s possible it could have been trained to accept him as a rider, but it seems to me that supernatural creatures capable of unnerving animals, even humanoid ones, would either be on their own supernatural mounts or not need mounts at all.
Whatever. This prologue is bland and uninspired, and the rest of the book’s probably not going to be much better.