Eragon by Christopher Paolini

Eragon, PaoliniKnopf Books for Young Readers, 2003
ISNB-13:  978-0375826689
Ages 12+

When Eragon, a poor farm boy, comes across a large blue egg while out hunting, the last thing he expects is that he’s taking home a dragon.  But soon one hatches, bringing with her an upsurge of danger and adventure.  At the death of his uncle, Eragon is forced out into the world beyond his humble home to face terrible foes and realize his destiny as the first of a new generation of dragon riders.

Christopher Paolini is an intelligent kid who has clearly read a lot of fantasy, so, having followed the example set by those novels, his own work is fairly fleshed-out — meaning it’s not the worst I’ve read.  The popularity of the Inheritance Cycle (of which Eragon is book the first) is undeniable, but I firmly believe it got kicked off for the wrong reasons, namely the author’s age when he started writing the series.  If one ignores the hype, as I have tried to do, and examines the quality of the work objectively, there is in actuality quite a bit to criticize and not much to praise.

First things first, the writing itself.  As I said, Paolini’s got a brain in his head, but he isn’t a natural writer, not by a long shot.  His sentence structure suffers, with regard to tenses in particular.  His descriptions wander into purple prose territory, too much so even for the imagery-friendly fantasy genre.  Where the largest problem lies, however, is in his blatant overuse of the thesaurus, a common problem which leads to words used incorrectly, phrases that contradict each other or just don’t make sense, and a forced narrative that makes it seem as though Paolini wants to impress us with his vocabulary.

As for the plot, it is Star Wars wearing a Tolkien cloak, with a little Anne McCaffrey thrown in for good measure.  The story follows George Lucas’ epic beat for beat (with the exception of the huge dragging section in the middle of Eragon where nothing happens); the elves, dwarves, and overall setting bring Lord of the Rings whooshing back; and poor McCaffrey’s lost her dragons and her entire magic system.  There’s a difference between drawing inspiration from other works, even using similar plot devices or settings, and plagiarism; the lack of originality in Eragon tips it toward the latter.  I can’t call to mind a single characteristic from the book that is peculiar to Paolini’s work.

In short, Christopher Paolini’s writing has reached a point where it is in effect beyond reproach — people will buy it and enjoy it no matter what is said by critics such as myself.  But as a supporter of the integrity of the book industry, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book.

2/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events) by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning, SnicketHarperCollins, 1999
ISBN-13:  978-0064407663
Ages 10+

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, orphaned after a terrible fire, are sent (or sentenced) to live with Count Olaf, who is supposedly a relative but whom the children have never met.  As it turns out, their instincts are correct — the Count is determined to get his creepy, long-nailed hands on the substantial Baudelaire fortune, no matter the cost.  The first of a thirteen-book series, The Bad Beginning kicks things off with a unique, classically charming, and delightfully grisly story.

What stands out the most in this quick, page-turning read is Snicket’s inimitable voice.  The narration is clever, engaging, and never-before-seen in a completely indescribable way.  Snicket strays from traditional story-telling and acts as the bearer of bad tidings, frequently warning us of horrible events to come and humorously pausing to define potentially confusing phrases for our benefit.

The story is tightly-knit and clean, and thus is enjoyable for all ages.  The character of Count Olaf is wrapped in cliche, but he takes on his own style and leaves other greedy schemers in the dust.  The children are commendable heroes, all likeable and with distinctive traits particular to each.

All in all, this beginning is anything but bad.  Writing like that of Lemony Snicket is a rarity, and not one that should be passed up.  I heartily recommend this book (and its successors) to anyone and everyone old enough to read.

5/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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Revenge by Luxi Li

Revenge, LiBookSurge Publishing, 2009
ISBN-13:  978-1439215890

Lilyannie Minwood lives in the town of Yonder, which is split into two factions by the dark and dangerous Forest of Images.  With the help of her mysterious magical gift — about which she herself knows very little — and her friend William, she must fight to save her world from a deadly feud, as well as a rapidly-spreading epidemic.

As I write this review, I am glaringly aware that this book was crafted by a seventh grader, and of the very real possibility that she may read this.  I plan to take these facts into account with regard to what I say, but it is also true that this book is published (through Booksurge, a self-publishing aid) and on the market, and as such must be evaluated with respect to consumer expectations.

The truth is, this book is clearly the work of a child.  The writing is impatient, typical of the author’s age group, and lacking many aspects that flesh a book out and make it marketable.  The narrative hops from point to point (characteristic again of young writers in a hurry to tell their tale), and is thus choppy and at times difficult to follow.  We are never given physical descriptions of the characters, not so much as hair and eyes colors (it is page 78 before we learn William’s age, and page 118 before we learn Lily’s).  The dialogue, with the exception of a few decent passages, tends to be awkward and unclear, with very little emotional connection.  Characters do not gesture or wear expressions as they speak, and other characters’ reactions to the dialogue/action are minimal at best.  The setting — pertaining to time period, description, even whether the subjects are inside or outside — is consistently undefined.  The plot itself does not hold up under scrutiny, and is linear and wandering.

As a small aside, sexist stereotypes as well are present in Revenge, enforcing the ideas that girls don’t play sports, need to be protected by boys, and should be married by the age of twenty.  This disturbed me as a potential commentary on today’s youth, and the possible regression their views are taking.  In addition, there is a small section (page 65) involving a phoenix and a snake that inevitably recalls J.K. Rowling’s Chamber of Secrets.

This review no doubt seems harsh — in reality, Luxi Li does not lack writing ability, and she undeniably has an active and bountiful imagination to go along.  Over time, her skills will develop.  For now, she faces the same struggles all writers her age face — learning to slow down, and get all of her ideas (descriptions in particular) from her head onto paper.  I am certainly not one to say that young people are incapable of accomplishing great things — but experience is against them, and it takes an incredible amount of grueling hard work to make a novel publishable, even for adults.

To conclude, while for a twelve-year-old this book is certainly an achievement to be celebrated, Revenge is simply not competitive with the wide market of books available.

1/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel, NixHarperCollins, 2008 (orig. 1997)
ISBN-13:  978-0061474354
Ages 12+

Sabriel looks forward to her father’s rare visits to her boarding school in Ancelstierre, but when he fails to come during her final year, she knows something is wrong.  An important and powerful necromancer called the Abhorsen, her father has many enemies, and it is of dire consequence that he be rescued.  So Sabriel, along with two companions, sets off into the dark and terrifying Old Kingdom to find him, and on the way, she discovers the truth of her own destiny.

Garth Nix’s writing is impeccable, and he has a gift for description.  There are times when reading this book causes you to forget reality completely, so submersed are you in Nix’s highly imaginitive world.  However, the first three-quarters of the book are lacking in tension that would have served to make the plot itself riveting — parts of the novel are tedious, but not from excessive, flowery writing.  It is simply difficult to connect with the characters and the action.

Having said this, readers who either are not troubled by this minor failing or who persevere will be fully satisfied by the ending, which is fantastically gripping.

Over all, this novel is an astounding achievement, and will without doubt be enjoyed by adults as much as by teens.  It is the first of a trilogy.

4/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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Wake by Lisa McMann

Wake, McMannSimon Pulse, 2008
ISBN-13:  978-1416974475
Ages 14+

Janie Hannagan has a gift — or rather a curse — for being sucked into other people’s dreams whenever they’re sleeping nearby.  She is witness to funny things; strange things; typical, boring things; and, in one instance, something so disturbing she won’t even drive on Waverly Road any more.  With the help of resident hottie Cabel Strumheller, Janie must discover whose terrifying dream she beheld, and what is wrong with her that she was able to see it in the first place.

When I started this book, I didn’t like it.  Then it got better, at which point I was quite into it, then it got worse again, and it didn’t recover.  The mystery McMann introduces is enough to keep a reader up at night for more than one reason, but it peters of shortly after its establishment and is ultimately unfulfilling.  In addition, it seems people fall asleep a lot more often in this story than they do in real life, presumably a tactic to keep Janie’s special ability at the forefront of readers’ minds.

Though possessing an intriguing premise, there is one semi-major flaw that for me made the entire foundation of the story unsound.  Dreams are people’s subconscious ramblings, not their conscious thoughts.  Most of the dreams upon which Janie intrudes bear significant consequence to the plot, but in my experience the majority of real-life dreams mean very little.

On a more positive note, the writing style is fast-paced and unique, adding a distinguished and enticing flare to the novel.

I would say that Lisa McMann’s debut into young adult fiction didn’t quite reach its potential, but the idea behind it is promising enough for me to have high hopes for its sequel, Fade.

3/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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Aurelia by Anne Osterlund

Aurelia, OsterlundPuffin, 2008
ISBN-13:  978-0142405796
Ages 12+

When Crown Princess Aurelia’s life is endangered by several assassination attempts, her father hires Robert Vantauge, the son of his former Royal Spy and an old classmate of Aurelia’s, to protect her and discover who is behind the plots.  There is an attraction between Robert and the fiesty princess to be sure, but as the king has ordered that Aurelia be kept ignorant of the peril surrounding her, the lies Robert is forced to tell her might serve to keep them apart.

We’ve seen similar plots done before, and it takes a great author to make something old into something new.  Unfortunately, Anne Osterlund’s debut doesn’t quite pull it off.  The storyline is predictable and, at times, boring.  The romance is clumsy, and the characters are for the most part one-dimensional (the only person I found appealing was Chris, Robert’s cousin).  Aurelia seems more spoiled and rude than independent and fiery, coming off as self-centered and mono-emotional (perpetually angry).

Other issues center around setting — I could never quite get a feel for the basic time period or location — and a lot of talk about horses that doesn’t add up (though readers who themselves don’t have much knowledge of horses are apt to be less bothered by this).

All in all, this book (the first of a proposed trilogy) took on stereotypes and proceeded to reinforce them.  One can only hope that the next two will offer something more original.

2/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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Update:  I don’t know what happened to the ‘proposed trilogy’, because Osterlund’s next endeavor, entitled Academy 7, is sci-fi and slated for release May 14, 2009.

Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith

Tantalize, Leitich SmithCandlewick Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0763627911
Ages 14+

Quincie Morris, whose dead parents left her and her Uncle Davidson in charge of the family restaurant, is in love with her best friend Kieren, who happens to be a hybrid werewolf in a world where shifters and vampires exist and are frequently discriminated against.  When the chef at Quincie’s restaurant is brutally murdered, in werewolf fashion, Kieren becomes the subject of much scrutiny.  Quincie no longer knows what to think, and she begins seeking support from the new chef, and from a wine of a very rich, red color.

This book suffers from a very linear, straight-shot plot — it takes the reader through step-by-step without provoking much thought or giving much background on the world we have entered.  Some people prefer this type of writing; I do not.  I found it predictable and a bit tedious in places, but what really keeps this book afloat is the engaging and clever inclusion of “food-talk” (for lack of a better term).  The Italian restaurant owned by Quincie’s family is trying out a new vampire theme, and the creative recipes will in turn repulse you and make your mouth water.  Also unique was the division of the book into parts mimicking the courses of an Italian meal:  antipasto; primo; secondo; dolce; and conforno.

In conclusion, this book is what I would call a “fluff read” — there’s nothing terribly complex about it, but there are some original elements that one might call ‘delicious’.  A recommendation for this one is up in the air.  If it sounds like something you would enjoy, you probably will.  If not, you can pass it up without fear of missing much.

3/5 stars

— Reviewer Anonymous

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