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Dragon saga has too much wind beneath its wings

Eldest
By Christopher Paolini
Knopf, 704 pp., $21

The 21-year-old Christopher Paolini's story is well known. Home-schooled, he finished the equivalent of high school at 15 and decided to spend some time writing a book. The result was ''Eragon," first self-published by his family, republished by Knopf two years ago, and a big bestseller. Now there is a sequel, ''Eldest," which is selling very well too.

If only Paolini could write stories with as engaging a hero as he is.

Not that ''Eldest" is all bad (although in places it is very bad). It's a good story, if way too familiar. Eragon and his mind-melded dragon, Saphira, are the last hope against the evil emperor Galbatorix. Aided by the Varden, now headed by the young and beautiful Nasuada, he starts his apprenticeship and has adventures. Of course he has a relationship with an equally beautiful Elvish maiden. Of course there are sorceresses wearing snake bracelets and not much else. There are dwarves, there are feasts and drinking bouts, there are Elvish queens with mysterious knowledge to impart. There are beings with funny names with lots of vowels. There is even (shudder) poetry.

Nothing wrong with a good thick serving of swords 'n' sorcery, but it needs a hero. In the hands of a writer like George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Barbara Hambly, or J. K. Rowling, the central characters of fantasy are persons worth knowing: smart, flawed, moral, doomed to love the world more than the world loves back.

It's fun that they're kings and queens and wizards, but we read the books because Miles Vorkosigan or Harry Potter are in them, the kind of people we'd like to know and be. Unfortunately, Eragon just doesn't measure up to the standard; he's a Frankenstein video-game hero, clanking with magic armor, charms, and weapons, but long on seams and short that essential spark of life.

The far better half of the book is the story of Eragon's foster brother, Roran, left behind to protect the village. Unlike Eragon, who is stickily admired by everyone he meets, Roran has nothing in his favor. The Urgals (there are Urgals) have killed his family and destroyed his farm. He can't aspire to marry his love, Katrina. The Ra'zac, the Urgals' evil bosses, come back to finish things off, and Roran has to rise to the occasion and organize the villagers. When the village proves indefensible, Roran inspires his people to move far across the country. Roran is motivated partly because the bad guys have kidnapped Katrina (Katrinas exist to be kidnapped). But in the process, as Paolini ably shows, Roran is reluctantly becoming a king; hating leadership, counting every enemy he has to kill, wanting nothing more than to get back to farming -- but doing the job because the job needs doing. Roran is a hero we want to meet again.

There are some other very nice bits. One character, Elva, is original and painful; the secret of the Ra'zac's mounts is truly nasty; there are some neat action sequences. (''The man stared dumbly at the glistening stump [of his severed thumb], then said 'This is what comes from not shielding myself.' 'Aye,' agreed Roran, and beheaded him.")

The high points of ''Eldest" are a little higher than ''Eragon"; the low points, unfortunately, are just as low. Paolini still writes drama that rises to a wet pop: a group of farmers attack evil soldiers, soldiers run away, the farmers kill only one of the soldiers and aren't very happy about it. The details of his world still don't hold together: in a city full of magic, a character is given a wooden alarm clock that he has to wind regularly.

Even though the author would like to have the whole village's food supply burn at once, villages not composed entirely of idiots do not store all their crops in one barn. A half-mile-high waterfall is not ''ordinary," not in any world. Well-behaved fantasy villagers don't yell ''We don't want no stinking barges!," letting a whole scene fall apart for the sake of a cheap joke.

Worst, because it's most entertaining, is Paolini's gift for overwriting. He is to English as a dog to a chainsaw: he worries it, and worries it, and devastation spreads around him. Lesser writers like Kirk Poland might settle for mildly stupid phrases like ''an intact well" (hard to break a hole, isn't it) or ''Nor to I." But Paolini aims for higher things, and his writing achieves a stumble all its own. ''Loring laughed, throwing back his head so the flame gilded the stumps of his teeth. 'First we fortify,' he whispered with glee, 'and then we fight. We'll make them regret they ever clapped their festering eyes on Carvahall! Ha ha!' " Paolini is capable of writing better. He should.

Paolini has turned his youth and undoubted talent into two big bestsellers, and it's hard to quarrel with success. But he used to be 17 and now he's 21, and as he gets older his story will get less attractive. Let's hope he learns how to tell a better one.

Sarah Smith's most recent book is ''Chasing Shakespeares." She is working on a book about the aftermath of the Titanic disaster.

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