J. Jacob Ford (odclay) wrote in chris_paolini,
J. Jacob Ford

Dragons! Or: A Really Effing Long and Biased Comparison Between Two Books

(Cross-posted from antishurtugal).

A few weeks ago I mentioned Naomi Novik's new Temeraire trilogy, only recently released in the US, and I promised a comparison between the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, and Eragon. And I promised to finish much earlier than this. I'm lazy, though, so I've missed all my self-imposed deadlines. Terribly sorry. Here's the comparison now, in all its...very long...er, glory.

Christopher Paolini once said that all fantasy is derivative. That may be true, but it doesn't quite excuse the fact that his Inheritance trilogy is still sod-all boring and unoriginal. Farm boy? Check. Ancient order? Check. Wise old man, beautiful maiden, evil empire, etc.? Check, check, check, and etc. Star Wars with dragons, whoo-hoo-hoo.

But if all fantasy is really derivative, the basic premise of Paolini's books--Hero finds dragon egg and fights evil empire--somehow manages to work much, much better in Naomi Novik's His Majesty's Dragon, the first book in her Temeraire trilogy. Surprising? Similar premise, yet different story. And may I mention that this is Ms. Novik's first book, too?

Ok, enough bias (riiiiiiight....) On to the books:

Summary of Eragon, from the cover:
When Eragon finds a polished blue stone in the forest, he thinks it is the lucky discovery of a poor farm boy; perhaps it will buy his family meat for the winter. But when the stone brings a dragon hatchling, Eragon realizes he has stumbled upon a legacy nearly as old as the Empire itself. Overnight his simple life is shattered, and he is thrust into a perilous new world of destiny, magic, and power. With only an ancient sword and the advice of an old storyteller for guidance, Eragon and the fledgling dragon must navigate the dangerous terrain and dark enemies of an Empire ruled by a king whose evil knows no bounds. Can Eragon take up the mantle of the legendary Dragon Riders? The fate of the Empire may rest in his hands. . . .

Right. Enough bullshit. Summary of His Majesty's Dragon, from the back cover:
When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

Ok, so we have that out of the way. I always hated summarizing books, so that's why I used the books' own summaries. Anyway. On to the books. Many thanks to quenbolyn for her input in the email discussions we had.

The World: Alagaesia vs. 19th Century Earth (With Dragons!)
Alagaesia isn't really much of a world; it's mostly a map where our heroes run around. So far, from the first two books, Paolini has done little to give his fantasy land any personality, any depth--indeed, any life. The land is ruled by King Galbatorix, with Surda and the Varden opposed, but there are still few politics and no real clashes in cultures. The only diversity lies in the variable races, but again, there is little personality or depth here. All humans are the same, as are all Dwarves, all Elves, all Urgals, et cetera. Each race seems to have a single religion (or lack thereof), culture, mindset, etc., and there is little, if any, individuality among the people of this land. And despite the supposed differences and separation of the races, everyone--excluding the guards in Teirm, as pointed out by Quenbolyn and mum--seems to speak the same. How boring.

As for His Majesty's Dragon, it's early Nineteenth Century Great Britain. With dragons. I'm afraid my knowledge of that historical period is rather lacking, so I'll not embarrass myself. Instead I'll mention the point that sets HMD apart from Eragon, something you'll easily find in any other book and will likely take for granted: the characters have personalities! Individual personalities! And individual voices! Heck, the dialogue may seem stilted and oddly formal, but it feels like it belongs in the story (Great Britain, early 1800s), unlike Paolini's indecisive (Am I modern or archaic? Will somebody please decide?) and horribly-written awkward speech.

Quenbolyn and I discussed the richness of personality, and as she said it, "The characters are... well, they're actually characters! Each crew member has their own personality, their own quirks. Without it being said, "Captain Laurence was an intelligent man", you know that he deserves the rank of captain. He's not pissy or quick to assume. Only one chapter into the book, and I feel for the guy. You want his life to work out. You want him to get married, have a home, a family. You don't want him to die, even under the noblest of circumstances."

Our Hero: Eragon vs. Laurence
Whereas you just want Eragon to die, period. I'm sure nobody in his/her right mind actually likes Our Hero. Whiny, stupid little farmboy that even an ANH-era Luke wouldn't hesitate to bitch-slap. He's completely incompetant and unbelievable as a heroic character; Eragon should be dead a few dozen times over by now, but he's lucky. And he's blessed with a bunch of other more-competant companions to rescue his ass when he gets in trouble. We can't forget his opossum-like reflexes, either. Trouble strikes, and Eragon passes out. And if you think I'm being biased and unfairly cruel, get serious. Eragon is a stupid little Mary-Sue and you know it. I'm sick of writing about this Nancy boy.

On the other hand, Laurence could hardly be considered a Mary-Sue. He's far from perfect. Intelligent, sure, but not a scholar and not extremely well-educated (Temeraire is better at French and math than he is), but he's smart nonetheless. He certainly wouldn't be a captain in the Navy if he wasn't. And he's not a stereotypical farm-boy hero, either: As the third son of a somewhat high-ranking figure in politics (correct me if I'm wrong; I don't feel like flipping through the books for reference right now), Laurence ran away from home at a young age and joined the Navy. He eventually worked his way up to Captain, and had a pretty good career going until he captured the French ship with the dragon egg. He wasn't even supposed to be the hero; the crew drew lots when the egg seemed ready to hatch, and another sailor was chosen. But the dragon ignored the "lucky" fellow's attempts to harness him, and picked Laurence instead. It's not too surprising, but, as mentioned below, you get the feeling that the dragon made the right choice. He picked Laurence. And Laurence named him Temeraire.

Quenbolyn said: "Though my favorite part (so far) is the simplicity of Temeraire's personality. "I do not have a name." "If you please." "I'm hungry." "Very well." Almost lackadaisical, but not annoyingly so. I also got the feeling that Temeraire was seeking out which guy he wanted for a "rider", and that he made a good choice (Unlike certain other books that shall remian nameless. *ahem*)"

His Dragon: Saphira vs. Temeraire
The humans aren't the only characters who have disctinct personalities. The dragons do, too. Temeraire is intelligent and well-spoken, but that's a result of fine Chinese breeding. Other dragons are pretty well-bred too, but some, as in the case of one Volatilus ("I was hatched! From an egg!), intelligence is occasionally sacrificed for size and speed. But despite their breeding, the dragons are all clearly individuals, so much so that the case of one timid and abused dragon, Levitas, really yanks the heartstrings. I doubt Paolini could manage that; after Saphira's slightly cute hatching, she quickly grew into a pseudo-wise, somewhat cocky, advice-spewing load of blue. Never cared much for her.

My main (read: only) problem with Temeraire, and only one of two major problems in the story, was that Temeraire emerged from the egg fully verbal--in English, of all things. It seems a bit strange for a Chinese dragon captured aboard a French ship to speak English as its first words, and some time later, Temeraire also holds a short conversation with another dragon in French (and, in Throne of Jade, Chinese). While the explanation is provided (dragons absorb language while still in the shell), it still seemed slightly farfetched. But if that's the biggest technical problem in the book, hell, it's no big deal. Just look at Quenbolyn's mother's nitpicking in Eragon.

Quenbolyn said: "I ended the first chapter feeling for Laurence and his plight, that he believes all of his hopes and dreams to be given a snowball's chance in hell, but at the same time, you're eager to see what kind of relationship will unfold between him and Temeraire."

The Dragon/Rider Relationship
Most important is the hero's reaction to getting a dragon. While Eragon never says "Sweet!", he's probably thinking it. He has a dragon. Dragons are cool. The Dragon Riders of Yore were awesome folk, and now Eragon can be one of them. This is so wizard! On the other hand. Laurence was probably thinking "Oh, bugger, I have a dragon." He was already captain of his own ship, rather comfortable in his position, and the dragon wasn't supposed to choose him. He didn't pick the straw. So, when Temeraire does pick him, Laurence is suddenly trapped in deep shit. A dragon is a burden. There's weight and responsibility behind the position, and Laurence cannot captain a ship and a dragon at the same time. First sacrifice. Furthermore, he certainly cannot marry his childhood friend Edith; how could he provide a fitting home for her? Worse, his father isn't very pleased, as if it's Laurence's fault that Temeraire chose him. So, Laurence isn't having an easy time. Neither did Eragon, of course, but that's because he accidentally stepped in a contrived plot and never managed to scrape it off his boots.

While the bond between Eragon and Saphira is mostly mental (I've been wanting to say that for a long time), the relationship between Temeraire an d Laurence seems more realistic. Temeraire can speak, so it feels like a regular friendship among equals. None of this thought-speak tripe. The bond between Temmy and Laurence is, dare I say, charming. And I know I'm wandering too close to the no-man's land of Poor Description and Summarization, so that's all I'll say about it. It's charming. Read the book.

Quenbolyn saves the review by saying: "I enjoy the fact that Laurence is teaching him. How to fly during a storm, reading to him... and their relationship is sweet (for lack of a better word). The gold chain... the "I would rather have you" comments... makes me feel all mushy inside."

The Dragon Riders vs. the Aerial Corps
If dragons in Inheritance are independently intelligent and can grow as big as hills, as Brom claims, why the hell would they even need a rider? Forget a stupid bloody bond; a huge dragon is kick-ass enough without a puny uber-Elfish magicman sitting on its back. And despite all the info-dumping that goes on in the series, we really know very little else about these Riders. So, they were only soldiers of good, were they? No Sith-like secret factions of evil Riders? A pity; there's yet another two-dimensional aspect of the books. Women Riders? No mention; the only Riders seen or named were males, unless I'm forgetting something. Even Star Wars had hot Jedi chicks (Oh, Aayla Secura...), but as far as I recall, Paolini doesn't mention it. Of course, with some signs pointing towards Arya getting the green dragon in Empire, we might get some answers. But probably just a convenient way to shove an epic romance down our throats.

Anyway, the real question is: What was the bloody point? Aside from preventing further conflict between the Elves and Dragons, the Riders seemed pretty pointless. Unless Paolini hasn't told us something, there were no evil Dragon Riders, no warring nations with which to pick sides (if I recall, Alagaesia was a single unified land), and just the peace to keep. Those Riders must've been really bored. No wonder Galbatorix managed to take over.

On the other hand, the Corps are far less glamorous. Of course the military needs dragons in wartime, especially if the other side has dragons too. Aerial support is a damn good thing to have, both for defense and offense. But in peacetime, there has to be a bit of a problem. What do you do with all these dragons? And what about their captains? Corpsmen aren't high society anyway; forget that "Heroic Guardians of the Land" crap. As Quenbolyn noted, the Corps stands on the bottom rung of Britain's military force. Dragons are a friggin' burden.

Quenbolyn said: "In Inheritance, the eggs sit in a kind of stasis, just waiting for the future Rider to show up. In HMD, a future aviator is given an egg with all the ceremony of a captain being given his first command."

Yeah, none of that Destiny shite (called shite because azura_feilong already wondered about such inconsistencies as the length of time it took Saphira's egg to hatch). The eggs in Ms. Novik's world don't sit around waiting for the right person to come along. Instead, they just hatch. Whenever they want. And I can't quite recall the Corps' practice, but the aviator is chosen beforehand by the Corps, and must harness the dragon once it hatches. There is ceremony, as Quenbolyn mentioned, but even that has to be abandoned sometimes, like when the egg decides to conveniently hatch at midnight when its future aviator is somewhere else entirely. But it's not a jolly time, and there's no bloody magic in the deal.

Furthermore, it's no real surprise that the Corps are a male-dominated group. This is the early nineteenth century, after all, and were it not for the fact that one breed, the longwings, refuse male captains, there would be absolutely no women riding dragons at all. But there are a few. That's the Aerial Corps' dirty little secret.

Another thing I liked about Ms. Novik's dragons were they way they were used in battle. While Paolini apparently had just one rider per dragon no matter the size, the dragons in HMD, at least the larger ones, had actual crews who rode with them in battle: the captain, of course, as caretaker, master, and companion to the dragon, as well as gunmen and various other crew, as well as a ground crew employed to keep the dragon fed, groomed/cleaned, well-equipped, etc. And, with a large crew on some of the larger dragons, aerial combat becomes much more exciting. You got dragons, and dragons have claws. Some breathe fire or spit poison, but all of them have men with guns on their backs. And you should watch your back, because you never know when your dragon could get boarded...

Quenbolyn said: "Something else to mention would be the overall threat of Napoleon compared with Galby. In both books, they're only referred to, never shown. How does one bad guy compare to the other?"

The Villain: Galbatorix vs. Napoleon
Sure, Galbatorix could totally kick Napoleon's ass, but that's because he can do TEH

MAGIC. That ain't the point. In both books the major villian, be he evil or merely French (ok, Corsican), never actually appears in the story. Galbatorix is the dark king who suffers from Darth Vader sydrome and never leaves his capital; Napoleon is...somewhere. I'm afraid I don't know much about Napoleon or his rule (We learned about French history in French IV in high school, starting in 200 BC or so, but we never made it past the first Revolution before summer), and I expect HMD mirrors the history of the Wars somewhat, with dragons, so Napoleon is wherever he should be. He's certainly not going to pop up in random spots, or lead the invasion into England himself; so, because this is a story about Laurence and Temeraire, who are only training in the Corps, there is really no need to feature the major villain.

In Eragon and the rest of the trilogy, Eragon's main goal is to woo Ary--I mean, become powerful enough so that he can eventually defeat King Big King, who has been absent for the first two rounds. All we know is that he is EVIL EVIL EVIL, and the only proof we have is the actions of his minions. Napoleon, on the other hand, is certainly not evil, and certainly not portrayed as such. He may be despised and hated because he's the enemy, but the characters never bothered to paint him in a villainous light.

Quenbolyn said: "Oh, and a comparison of the final battle scenes in each book would be interesting, too."

The Final Battle
I'm not going to talk about the actual battle in each book; I'd much rather wait and read what Quenbolyn's mum has to say about Eragon, and because I hope you people find time to read His Majesty's Dragon at some point, I'm not going to give anything away. Instead, I'm going to talk about the turning point of the battle--which, in both books, is rather deus ex machina-ish.

In Eragon, Durza rises from the ground to face Our Hero as the pair are surrounded by a ring of Urgals (d'you think Paolini had a movie in mind when he wrote this?). They duel, hurl lame verbal abuse at each other, try to break into each others' mind, etc. Just as Eragon breaks into Durza's mind, Durza retaliates with a slash across Ergy's back (why didn't he just STAB the stupid kid?). Just when Our Hero believes that All Hope Is Lost, Arya breaks the big sapphire thingy and Saphira breathes fire for the first time ever. And because Durza gets distracted, Ergy wins. Hooray.

The only thing I'll say about the battle in His Majesty's Dragon is "reverse D-Day-style aerial invasion fought with dragons." But, like in Eragon, there comes a moment in which all hope seems lost, the British will lose, and Napoleon's forces will invade England. At that crucial moment, Temeraire discovers his secret power (read the book) and uses it. For the first time ever. That seems just a bit deus ex machina-ish if you ask me; Quenbolyn and I agree that Ms. Novik could've shown us Temeraire's ability in development instead of having it appear, at the moment it's needed, at full strength. But you can't have anything, i suppose. It was still better than Eragon.

And to continue the better-than-Eragon trend:

The Sequel: Eldest vs. Throne of Jade
Quenbolyn said: "Funny enough, my first thought when reading the back of ToJ was: 'Oh, shit. Laurence and Temmy are starting out on a long journey to a faraway and mysterious land, just like Eragon and Saphira in Eldest.' And then I started on page one and promptly forgot about any such thing as a similarity."

I totally agree. Quenbolyn finished the book a while ago, but I'm a slow reader and I've been distracted by finals (Oh, just pity me, will you?), so I'm a little more than halfway through. In ToJ, a Chinese delegation demands that Temeraire be taken back to China, and the British have little choice but to comply. But Temmy refuses to be separated from Laurence (it's a much stronger relationship than the one between Ergy and Saphira), so they go together. So far, they've spent most of the book on ship (Q. knows how it ends, though), but it's still quite good. I'm not even going to mention Eldest again. Ewww. ToJ is loads better.

And so, that's my comparison. Bloody hell, this thing ran long. All I have to say is: Eragon and His Majesty's Dragon, two different ways of telling the same story. And Eragon still sucks, so I encourage you all to read the better book.

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