We found Eragon, the first book in this trilogy (as of Spring, 2006, the third is not yet published), so involving that we were not sure we would survive until we read Eldest.
And, well, Eldest is ok.
We are certainly going to read the next book in the series, just as soon as we can get our eyes on it.
But Eldest, like many of the middle volumes of many trilogies, was much more of a chore and less of a pleasure to read than Eragon was.
Perhaps this is because Eldest intersperses the interesting tale of Eragon's formal education as a Dragonrider with the travails of Eragon's cousin, Roran.
While Eragon gets to hang out with the beautiful, gentle, self-involved, enigmatic Elves, Roran faces the wrath of the evil Empire pretty much on his own. And poor Roran, unlike Eragon, lacks many of the advantages that make Eragon's struggles tolerable. For example, Eragon has a dragon who has endowed Eragon with super-human abilities. Roran would also have benefited from a mentor who could have explained why the Empire was inflicting atrocity after atrocity upon Roran and his village. Roran can rely only on his considerable mental, political, and physical talents, fueled by his passion for his love, Katrina, to empower him to save himself and his fellow villagers.
Eldest is bleak, much, much bleaker than Eragon. In fact, so bleak that my daughter and I often found ourselves hard-pressed to keep reading. On the other hand, when, at one point, Roran finally managed to score one of his several victories over his oppressors, my daughter was surprised and impressed. "Way to go, Roran," she cried. And meant it. I mean, many of the characters are very interesting, likeable even, even some of the not-so-savory ones. We certainly did want to know what happened to them and wished them well.
Many reviews of Paolini's books have mentioned how derivative they are of the Lord of the Ring books. Since I am not much of a fan of LOTR, I can't address this point by point. Eragon certainly borrows conventions and plot twists from earlier dragon-based fantasies. It's impossible to not notice Eragon's debts to Anne Mccaffrey's dragon books. Eldest steals from other conventions as well; it seems to incorporate some Star War-ish motifs, and not to its great benefit. However, I was not overly troubled by these borrowings; I think they happen often in fantasy. What I care about is how well a book immerses us in the lives of the characters and the lands in which they find themselves.
Paolini has done a good job, I think, of describing the cultures of the Elves and the towns and villages through which Roran and his allies pass. For example, when Paolini documents the way Eragon finds himself helpless to stop in his romantic pursuit of Arya, an Elf who may be nearly a century older than he is -- well, it is embarrassing, heart-breaking, and, while my daughter and I kept hoping Eragon would just stop making Arya feel that she was being stalked, we felt it rang very, very true. We pitied Eragon and sympathized with Arya for having to (repeatedly) reject him. "She's HUNDREDS of years older than you, stupid," my daughter exclaimed at one point.
And there are other very lovely touches here -- Paolini's explanation of how Eragon becomes a vegetarian, for example, and the complex rules he lays out governing the use and language of magic.
On the other hand, beware of graphic violence and a pervasive sense of dread in the face of overwhelming, evil enemies determined to crush the life out of Eragon, Roran, and everyone they know. And know that this sense of overwhelming danger is not resolved by the end of this, the middle, of the trilogy.
-- Emily Berk