The arrival of Inheritance, the final book in Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, was a momentous one here at Kirkus. Not because I'd been waiting with bated breath for it, but because it occasioned so much fuss. Both our reviewer and I had to sign nondisclosure agreements that immediately wiped out any advantage my young nephew has in being related to me. (One perk of the job is the ability occasionally to dole out advance copies of highly anticipated books, which momentarily elevates me to a level of cool I don't usually enjoy.)
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But once the NDA's were signed and the double-sided ream of paper arrived a scant four days before publication, I was able to set administrative concerns aside and think about the Phenomenon that is Christopher Paolini.
I have been something of a sourpuss with regard to this particular epic. I read Eragon when it first came out and was astonished at the acclaim granted a book I found to be hopelessly derivative and ponderously self-conscious. It seemed to me that the story behind Eragon had trumped Eragon's story.
It's legend by now: 15-year-old homeschooled high-school graduate Paolini decided to defer college and write a novel. His family self-published it and promoted it energetically enough that it came to the attention of Carl Hiaasen, whose stepson bought it while the family was on a fly-fishing trip to Montana. Hiaasen recommended it to his editor at Knopf, and the rest is publishing history. According to the cycle's website, Alegesia.com, the first three books have sold 25 million copies, and Inheritance has an initial print run of 2.5 million.
That's a lotta books.
But what struck me as I sludged my way through Eragon was how immature the book was. Impressive in scope, yes, and far beyond what the average 15-year-old could produce—average anyone could produce, arguably—it nevertheless spoke more of promise to me than accomplishment. Paolini was clearly a voracious reader of fantasy, but his book felt to me more like an ambitious reworking of plots, themes and characters than the work of an original voice.
And I thought, what a tragedy for both Paolini and the world of readers that he's been rewarded so thoroughly. Having been confirmed as a best-selling author at such an incomplete stage in his development as a writer, would he ever reach a thoughtful, original maturity? Or would he stay stunted by success forever?
Mind you, I'm not sure it matters on a practical level. Presumably he has netted enough from his millions of copies sold (and those movie rights, too) that, with wise financial advice, he will never have to worry about how he will pay his mortgage. My concern was that the world might have lost a truly exciting new voice.
Which was why I was happy to read this line from our review: "… the act that leads to the thoroughly predictable outcome is just one of several ingenious twists…" That "thoroughly predictable outcome" was fixed 13 years ago by a promising 15-year-old author. Though still laboring within his childhood schema, the now 28-year-old (though still looking like a cherub in his pictures) writer has managed to inject some freshness into that framework. On his website, Paolini's bio concludes: "Once the Inheritance cycle is finished, Christopher plans to take a long vacation and ponder which of his many story ideas he will write next."
Here's hoping that long vacation will lead to a mature fulfillment of the promise that bowled us all over so many years ago.
Vicky Smith is the children's and YA editor at Kirkus.