I’ve recently finished reading Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, the second novel in The Dresden Files. It was a fun read, with likable protagonists and lots of action. There was one thing that drove me crazy about it, though: every chapter had to end on a cliffhanger. I understand why authors do this, and I’ve done it in my own writing, but when it happens every chapter, it gets a little tiring, not to mention formulaic. You can predict how each chapter is going to go: Harry is in trouble, gets himself out of trouble, winds up in worse trouble. Repeat as necessary.
Again, I understand the benefits of doing this, but it begins to lose impact the more it happens. This is why when a chapter ends with Eragon passing out and getting himself captured for the twelfth time, I really don’t care.
Of course, this may be because I don’t care about the character himself, because he’s dumb.
Murtagh revealing that he’s the son of Morzan is actually a pretty good cliffhanger, though. We’re left waiting for the emotional fallout, rather than waiting to see if Eragon gets rescued again. (Spoiler: he does. He always does.) But this new inforation is the real obstacle to their friendship. Or, rather, the friendship we’re told they have, because whenever we see them talking, they’re usually arguing.
As expected, there’s a lot of a shock and sudden distrust. Saphira and Eragon are immediately defensive and wary. Saphira doesn’t even want to leave Eragon’s side, afraid that Murtagh will attack him. Eragon doesn’t give him the benefit of the doubt, which I might yell at him about, except that it makes sense for his character. At this point, he’s still only sixteen, and he’s never been a font of wisdom. Even Saphira, who I’ve critiqued for maybe being just a little too wise, is concerned. She’s still a young dragon, and she’s finally acting her age, too. That, and she has plenty of reason to hate the son of Morzan.
Fortunately, Saphira does manage to have some common sense and points out that if Murtagh really wanted to hurt Eragon, he would have done so already. Murtagh’s parentage is a rather distressing subject for him, and has said more than once that he never asked to be born. Eragon treats Murtagh rather coldly, even after Saphira talks sense into him. Instead of coming across as cautious, or savvy, it makes Eragon look more like a jerk than ever.
But that’s only for a few pages. Soon enough, the army of Urgals are on top of them. The trio only has a few more hours to get Arya the antidote she needs, so the pressure is on. It’s actually a pretty exciting chapter, especially when Saphira starts fighting the Urgals. She can’t breathe fire yet, but her ferocity is really impressive, even when it seems they’re hopelessly outnumbered.
There was also a scene that I related to a little too well. Eragon believes that he’s found the entrance to the Varden, but the door won’t open. He quickly realizes he’s on the wrong side of the lake. I might make fun of this, except I have no sense of direction. At all. This is totally something I would do.
Near the end of the chapter, Eragon is knocked into the river, and he, Murtagh, Arya and Saphira are rescued by two members of the Varden. The scene is a little hard to understand and visualize, but it’s one of the rare cases where a confusing action scene actually works. It helps accentuate the chaos of the battle and the rescue, and the characters’ own confusion.
In the next chapter, Eragon, et. al. are taken inside the mountain to be questioned. It’s made clear early on that the Varden are dangerous, not just a rag-tag bunch of lovable scrappers. Throughout the series, there’s supposed to be some ambiguity as to whether the Varden are a group of rebels fighting for a just cause, or terrorists fighting the rightful ruler of the land. And while the leaders do morally questionable things (*cough* Elva *cough*), on the whole, you’re supposed to cheer for them, because they are soundly the good guys. This is one of the few times when we see that there is a darker side to them.
Eragon and Murtagh are questioned by a magician who is using magic to probe into their minds. Isn’t this…a little unnecessary? This guy is obviously high level, and “Zone of Truth” is only a second-level spell. Considering that you can make just about anything happen with the right words and phrasing in the Ancient Language, there had to be an easier way to form a spell that would have Eragon and Murtagh tell the truth, without breaking into their heads.
It backfires on him anyway, because Murtagh is able to block the man from entering his mind, and with Saphira’s help, Eragon is able to hide some of his memories as well. And while Eragon is a jerk on many levels, he at least doesn’t reveal the secret of Murtagh’s parentage. Good on you, Eragon.
As for the magician himself, who literally doesn’t have a name, could it be any more obvious that he’s evil?
‘Now, remove the defenses from around your mind [. . .] If you try to hide anything from me, I will take what I want by force…which would drive you mad. If you don’t submit, your companion will be killed.’ [. . .]
‘You’d better not harm him, Egraz Carn, else the king will have words for you.’
The bald man looked at him irritably, then faced Eragon with a small smile. ‘Only if he resists.’ [. . .]
He paid keen attention to so many things Eragon considered irrelevant, such as his mother, Selena, and seemed to linger on purpose so as to prolong the suffering.
So when he and his twin betray the Varden in the next book, absolutely no one is surprised. The Varden really needs to screen their mages better.
Even so, this chapter made me remember why I liked Murtagh so much. He’s a total badass. He refused to allow the mage to pick his brain, and shows impressive mental strength. He’s able to fight off the mage’s attack until another member of the Varden commands Magey to stop.
Most of the rest of the chapter is Murtagh giving Eragon–and the readers–his history. While I’m not a big fan of information dumps, it works here, because he’s also answering the questions the readers want to know. I’ll also give Paolini props for giving us the full story, instead of just handwaving plot holes with, “that’s a story for another time”.
It soon becomes clear that Murtagh’s parentage is a distressing subject for him. Morzan was an abusive alcoholic, and Murtagh’s mother was trapped in the relationship, doing his bidding.
Now this is one of the moments where I can see how I’ve changed. I’ve always been the girl going, “I’m a strong independent woman who don’t need no man!” and, in high school, really hated Murtagh’s mom. I thought she was so weak, staying with an abusive man for years, when she should have just walked away. Why didn’t she just up and leave?
Now I’m older, and I understand things better. I didn’t know then that leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly hard and frightening. Even the strongest person would have a difficult time with that. Even moreso when your abuser is capable of riding dragons and using magic and can kill you at fifty paces.
All that said, there are still some issues with this. Murtagh was raised in Galby’s palace, and only escaped a few months ago. Apart from Brom, he’s the most worldly character in this book. He’s the dark and brooding one, the one with survival skills. While he was trained to fight in the palace, so his swordsmanship makes sense, but the rest? I’m not buying it.
He only met Galby a few times, and tells Eragon about one of their meetings with some of the most awkward phrasing.
His words were entrancing, like a snake whispering gilded lies into my ears. A more convincing and frightening man I’ve never heard. [. . .] For a long time he was silent, but then he extended his hand and asked, “Will you, O son of my friend? serve me as I labor to bring about this paradise?” [. . .] the dream he had painted was too compelling, too seductive to ignore. Ardor for this mission filled me, and I fervently pledged myself to him.
Paolini, listen up. Use purple prose, or use beige prose, I don’t care. But stop switching between the two with no rhyme or reason, especially when Murtagh’s never spoken like that before.
He goes on to talk about how he came to realize that Galby was evil and insane, and that he decided to escape. Of course, he does this with some of the most awkwardly written dialogue in the book so far.
As soon as I was free of his presence, I and my faithful servant, Tornac, made ready for flight. We left that very night, but somehow Galbatorix anticipated my actions, for there were soldiers waiting for us outside the gates. Ah, my sword was bloody, flashing in the lantern glow.
Murtagh explains that he started following the Ra’zac in the hopes that they could lead him to a dragon, which begs the question: Why?
He wants to be free from Galby and his father’s shadow, so why does he follow the king’s most trusted servants around? He’s terrified his past will be revealed, but then why align himself with a Dragon Rider? I can only assume it’s so he has a powerful ally should he ever need one, but an easier and much better solution to his predicament is obvious. He could have just disappeared. His birth was a secret, and Algaesia’s a big place. Murtagh could have just changed his name, found a new city, and made a new life for himself.
For that matter, he doesn’t need to be so afraid of what the Varden will do to him if they find out about his heritage. He spent almost his entire life in Galby’s court, and once he shows them that he’s defected, he’d become a valuable resource to them.
I get it. Plot is propelled forward by characters making stupid choices. Murtagh is an important character throughout the series, and becomes Eragon’s foil by the end of the second book. You wouldn’t get that if he’d just disappeared, which would be the sensible option.
I guess what I’m not buying is the whole “Murtagh finds Eragon by following people he shouldn’t have been following if he’s so scared about getting caught” excuse.
I think this is another missed opportunity for character development. Murtagh’s out in the world on his own for the first time. He must be scared, uncertain, and confused. Probably angry, too, feeling betrayed by Galby. There’s an enormous amount of potential to create not just a great character arc, but a great character. Unfortunately, emotions come last while the plot is railroaded forward. Instead of an intriguing character, we’re left with a two-dimensional figure who has a few moments of greatness, but then falls as flat as the rest of the cast.
There is at least one way Murtagh outshines Eragon as a character.
Eragon is Algaesia’s biggest idiotball. Murtagh is its biggest drama queen.