Chapter Twenty: A Flour Made of Flame
In which we get some half-decent character stuff, along with a lot of logistical failures.
Chapter Twenty is entitled “A Flour Made of Flame.” My inner editor is resisting very, very hard to not correct that to flower, since flower would make more sense. But that’s not the real problem with the chapter title.
I have this issue with a lot of books that use chapter titles. While they’re useful when you’re looking back at the book and you’re trying to find a particular scene, they are terrible on your first read-through because they are very often spoilery. This chapter is about Roran, and it’s been set up earlier that he’s got several barges full of flour. Obviously, in this chapter they are going to blow up the flour. The fact that you already got that information from the chapter title ruins the actual moment where it happens. It murders the actual event.
“How do you like having a sister?” Roran asked Baldor as they rode side by side toward the nearest set of mills in the gray half-light that precedes dawn.
I wouldn’t complain about the first line, but it’s just so clunky. If it had ended at “mills,” it would have been fine, but Paolini HAS to describe EVERYTHING. From my observations, the “half-light” before dawn is a blue color, not gray. In winter, it’s a lot grayer. But I have no idea what season it’s supposed to be in this book.
Baldor replies with something lame, and Roran observes the barge setup. They’ve attached four barges together with boards and nails, making a 500-foot long boat thingy. The barges have been loaded up with slate, and then with flour on top (two bags deep and five high, for those who are obsessive about details).
The immense weight of the slate and the densely packed flour, combined with that of the barges themselves, served to transform the entire floating structure into a massive, waterborne battering ram, which Roran hoped would be capable of plowing through the gate at the far end of the canal as if it were made of so many rotted sticks.
I’m not a boat person, but I really don’t think this plan would work in real life. For one, the front barge has been loaded down the most (after the men board, it’s only inches away from the water); once that thing picks up speed, I’d expect the front to start capsizing and the back end to start fish-tailing. I’m also highly dubious about this who gluing-boats-together thing. Unless those attachments are really, really good, I’d suspect that the supports would snap, be crushed, or be torn apart.
And lastly, and most important, I don’t think that the barges will be able to pick up enough speed. These are essentially rafts. They aren’t built for cutting through the water. They won’t be very fast and they’ll be exceptionally difficult to steer properly. Plus, I never got the impression that this river is an especially swift one. If there were justice in this world, Roran would miss the gate, hit the wall with the first barge, and then the supports of the following barges would break and the other barges would smash the first one against the wall.
They board, and Roran notes Brigman near the back. It seems that after their last interaction, Roran stripped him of all command and wonders if completely screwing up the command patterns that existed before was a bad idea.
Then he thinks to himself:
If he gives me any reason to distrust him, I’ll strike him down on the spot.
This strikes me as very reminiscent of a similar scene in Eldest when Birgit tells Roran that she blames him for her husband’s death, and that Roran must pay for it
Afterward, though—if an afterward existed—he would have to pay her price or kill her. That was the only way to resolve such matters. (Eldest)
It seems that Roran’s default problem solving technique is “murder whoever is bothering me.” I can see the family resemblance to Eragon.
Roran yells for his men to release the river (he says “Pry them loose,” but I was totally having a Treebeard moment).
Then Paolini spends two paragraphs describing berms and sluice gates before the men actually release the water. Priorities, Paolini!
Out of context time!
The men on the middle and topmost berms now grasped those beams—which protruded several feet from the embankments—and began to work them back and forth with a steady rhythm. In accordance with their plan, the duo stationed on the lowest berm waited several moments before they, too, joined in the effort.
Nothing happens for a moment, so Roran grabs a flour sack (I have no idea why), but then the berms start breaking as the sluice gates are opened and the water dumps into the river. And then we get a very odd narration moment.
Seeing it coming, the middlemost pair of warriors abandoned their posts, also leaping for the safety of solid ground.
It was well they did.
The “It was well they did” caught my attention. I’m trying to recall any other moments where the narrator actually stepped out into the story and said “This is a good thing” or “This is a bad thing.” If this were one of those books where the narration is a reflection of the POV character, this wouldn’t be a problem, but for the most part, we’ve had a (theoretically) impartial narrator. And then all of the sudden it’s stepping into the story? Why didn’t the editor catch this?
Roran realizes that the waterwheels might break and fall on them. Kind of an idiot for not realizing that before, friend.
Something that’s bothering me is that I cannot really picture what should be going on in this scene. As much meticulous detail went into describing this place, I’m just not seeing what’s going on. Why are the barges anywhere near the waterwheels?
I think the problem is that I have no idea how big or small this river is supposed to be. Obviously it’s not a tiny canal or something, since a waterwheel can be powered by it, and it must be sizable enough for barges to float on it.
From my personal experiences with rivers (camping in Idaho), I’m imagining that this river has to be at least thirty feet across in order to have the power and depth to carry large barges easily and also power waterwheels. If the river is about that size, I don’t see how the waterwheels would be close enough to the barges in order to cause wreckage.
The Megabarge is loosed, and Roran orders his men to start pushing it down the river with ten-foot long poles. That seems a bit shallow for a river that carries boats. Is it reasonable?
The surge of water jolts the barges forward. I would think that it would throw the unweighted end of the last barge up into the air, tipping the front of the vessel into the water and capsizing, or else the water would flood the end and capsize it that way. In any case, I don’t think a surge of several hundred gallons would just cause the vessel to surge forward.
In a surprising bit of realism, the end of the vessel DOES lift up, but it does not capsize. Boo.
It may be due to my forgetfulness, but this is apparently a canal. I grew up in a farming area (there was a wheat field in the middle of my suburban neighborhood flanked on all sides by houses). Unless this canal is really a large one, this plan seems highly, highly improbable. Modern canals would barely be able to float a canoe, let alone a barge. A huge wave of water would overflow and spill out of the canal, not magically funnel down it. And even if the canal is on the large size, Roran’s Megabarge is five hundred feet long. How the heck can you have a canal perfectly straight (which it would have to be) that goes on for several miles? Even if everything I know about boats and canals is wrong, I do know that in a pre-industrial society, you aren’t going to have canals that are the exact perfect dimensions to float a five-hundred-foot craft. I’m not even sure a proper all-out river would be able to handle a boat that big. My suspension of disbelief has been pushed down a flight of stairs.
They float down the river (and it mentions no hills, which means no visual cover for their idiot selves), and Roran yells the plan; they’re going to ram through the gate, make it to the inner wall, and find the lord of the town. He reminds everyone to stick to the buddy system before giving a Motivational Speech.
“Today we strike a mighty blow for the Varden. Today we win honor and glory such as most men dream about. Today … today we grave our mark onto the face of history. What we accomplish in the next few hours, the bards will sing about for a hundred years to come. Think of your friends. Think of your families, of your parents, your wives, your children. Fight well, for we fight for them. We fight for freedom!”
The men roared in response.
I don’t see how conquering a not-very-important city is fighting for the childrens and the freedom. The reason that “This day we fight” speeches work in stuff like Lord of the Rings and Braveheart and such is because there’s a lot on the line. When Aragorn or Theoden make a speech about how they’re fighting for Middle Earth and the strength of men, they really, truly mean it, and that’s why it has a punch. This, on the other hand, is a bit like a D&D player making a big speech before fighting some dire badgers. There isn’t a lot on the line here. This speech doesn’t fit here. If it were more of a “Let’s give them bastards what for” sort of thing, a rough-and-tumble speech, that’d be fine, but here Roran is speechifying because it’s the sort of Thing That Heroes Do.
Oh, and speaking of The Lord of the Rings:
Roran let them work themselves into a frenzy; then he lifted a hand and said, “Shields!” And, as one, the men crouched and lifted their shields, covering themselves and their companions so that it looked as if the middle of the makeshift battering ram were clad in scale armor made to fit the limb of a giant.
Hey, do you remember that part in The Two Towers film where the orc army starts walking up the ramp with their shields, and they look like scales? Yeah. Those were good times, weren’t they?
Roran looks at his men and takes not of Mandel, the same guy he took note of in an earlier chapter. I guess we’re supposed to go “oh, there’s a character connection,” but it’s a lot more like someone looking at their watch a couple times. It’s not a character thing, it’s just something that they do.
He also spots that his remaining dudes are starting their mock-siege, firing ballistae and catapults and making a great deal of noise.
I really feel that this city could have been taken a lot easier than by force like this. If they’ve got catapults, they can chuck dead animals into the city. They could have used the sluice-gate thing to corrupt or divert the city’s water supply. It would have taken a week or two, but I think they could have just sieged the place instead of going in, guns blazing.
A deep calm settled over Roran.
Battle was about to be joined.
Men were about to die.
He might be one of them.
Knowing this gave him a clarity of thought, and every trace of exhaustion vanished, along with the faint tremor that had plagued him since the attempt on his life just hours before. Nothing was so invigorating as fighting—not food, not laughter, not working with his hands, not even love—and though he hated it, he could not deny the power of its attraction. He had never wanted to be a warrior, but a warrior he had become, and he was determined to best all who came before him.
This is probably some of the best character writing—heck, probably just writing—that Paolini has done. Snappy, nice tone, and focused. And it also confirms that Roran is a bloodthirsty monster, which a better book would have explored more.
Roran then stops having a character moment to consider the door they’re going to breach. The top half is thick oak, and he guesses that below it is an iron grate. He assumes that the lower part will have degraded due to being submerged and has had logs attached to the front of the Megabarge to act as a ram for the lower half.
To which I say, bullshit. These people understand metal, and they understand rust. They wouldn’t use iron for this; they’d use a metal that forms a patina. Bronze or copper would be the logical choices for a water grate, not iron. His assumption is based upon the people of this town being idiots.
It was a clever plan, but he had no idea if it would really work.
Yes, Roran. Please pat yourself on the back.
The mouth of the archway that led to the gate loomed large before them, like the entrance to a cave.
How does this description add anything to the gate?!
One enemy soldier realizes that barges are crashing into the gate as they hit the gate. I honestly think the Aroughs people would have seen the Megabarge before then. It seems that Roran has a spell of Idiot Ball +5 that he casts on his enemies.
The force of hitting the wall throws Roran against the slate, which then slides onto his arms.
He grabbed the slab by the edges and, with a burst of furious strength, threw it overboard, where it shattered against the side of the passageway.
Bit of an overreaction there, mate.
The barge starts filling with water and Roran starts hacking away with an axe. He sees some “glowing rectangles” which turn out to be murder holes. While I applaud Paolini for knowing what murder holes are, I’m wondering why he put them in the city drain entrances.
AND ANOTHER THING. If they’ve flooded the canal, shouldn’t the barge be thumping against the top of the entryway?
Roran eventually breaks through, and the barge floats into an enormous stone room.
Question. What is this room? From it, there’s a gate to the city. So what IS this place? Customs? Water-treatment? What is it supposed to be? A bit later it’s described as being a cargo area, but it just doesn’t sit well with me. Does this have any historical backing?
City guards fire upon Roran’s men, but they block the bolts with their shields.
The dozens and dozens of bolts that protruded from their shields gave the company the appearance of a hedgehog.
If you’ve got dozens of bolts on your shield, your shield will be too heavy to carry. And good job killing tension there.
Roran was no swordsman, so he made no attempt to fence with his opponents. Instead, he let them hit his shield all they wanted, while he used his hammer to break their bones in return. Occasionally, he had to parry a cut or a stab, but he tried to avoid exchanging more than a few blows with any one person, because he knew his lack of experience would soon prove fatal. The most useful trick of fighting, he had discovered, was not some fancy twirl of the sword or some complicated feint that took years to master, but rather seizing the initiative and doing whatever his enemy least expected.
Thank you, weaponmaster Roran. Somehow I don’t think that the soldiers are just going to hit his shield. I think they’re going to try to stab him in the face. This advice is really elementary and oversimplifies actual fighting, and it’s really insulting to the Aroughs soldiers.
Roran dispatches a few soldiers before thinking about fighting again.
One of the things Roran liked about fighting with a hammer was that he did not have to pay much attention to what kind of armor his opponents were wearing. A hammer, like any blunt weapon, inflicted injuries by the strength of its impact, not by the cutting or piercing of flesh. The simplicity of the approach appealed to him.
Again, thank you Captain McObvious.
More soldiers pour into the room, but Carn (the magician) magically chucks slate and flour at them. Then he throws a fireball at the dust cloud of flour, and it bursts into flame.
A second later, there was a flare of light next to the wall behind the soldiers, and a huge roiling fireball, orange and sooty, raced through the clouds of flour, devouring the fine powder with rapacious greed and producing a sound like a hundred flags flapping in a high wind.
Roran ducked behind his shield and felt searing heat against his legs and the bare skin of his cheeks as the fireball burned itself out only yards away from the walkway, glowing motes becoming ash that drifted downward: a black, charnel rain fitting only for a funeral.
I hate having to look up words when I’m reading YA fiction. “Charnel,” when used as an adjective, means “Resembling, suggesting, or suitable for receiving the dead,” or “ghastly; sepulchral; deathly.” In any case, it’s pretty poetic stuff for burned flour bits. And we get our chapter title. Huzzah.
Roran realizes that his beard is burning, so he beats it out and then yells at Carn for it. He sees that most of the enemies are a lot worse off than Roran, and he shouts to his men.
“Stop gaping like fools and get after those groping rascals before they regain their senses!” he ordered, banging his hammer against the railing to ensure that he had their attention.
I’ll just let that speak for itself.
The rest of Roran’s men kill the defenseless enemies, and Roran looks around at the doors to the city. Apparently the canal is big enough for two wagons. I’m still dubious.
I’ve touched briefly on some of the possible Two Towers references in this spork; the explosion under the water grate, moving beams to release the river, the “heroic” speech—and now we have lembas bread.
As he did, he came upon Carn, who was sitting at the base of the crane’s platform, eating out of a leather pouch he always carried. The pouch, Roran knew, contained a mixture of lard, honey, powdered beef liver, lamb’s heart, and berries. The one time Carn had given him a piece, he had gagged—but even a few bites could keep a man on his feet for a whole day’s worth of hard work.
Is nothing sacred?
They throw open the gates and enter the city.