Chapter Fifty-Eight: The City of Sorrows
Hi all, lurking goldfish here with Chapter 58: The City of Sorrows.
Unlike chapter fifty-seven, this one is longer than a drabble. On the other hand, it’s also got more padding than a dentist’s chair, with which it shares a number of other similarities. For example, both make my teeth ache.
The chapter begins with a little white lie.
“The Varden arrived at Urû’baen.”
Actually, they’re five miles from Urû’baen, standing on a convenient ridge which provides a panoramic view. More accurately, therefore, the Varden enjoy a nice view of Urû’baen, but presumably that sounded less dramatic in Paolini’s head. In any case, they stop to take in the sights.
“Roran heard the cries from the men at the head of his column as they crested a ridge. Curious, he looked up from the heels of the dwarf in front of him, and when he arrived at the top of the ridge, he paused to take in the view, as had each of the warriors before him.”
Maybe I’m just simple-minded, but either these warriors object to walking within several hundred metres of each other and can therefore stop mid-column without inconveniencing the guy behind – or they are at risk of causing some kind of traffic jam. Why don’t they, I dunno, form a group at the head of the ridge and discuss their observations? Or send up a couple of blokes to do a recce and then meet up on the less-blatantly-obvious side of the ridge to share their intel and draw some conclusions before heading on, perhaps even unobtrusively, towards the Very Scary City? Instead, each man arrives on top of the ridge, cries out for some reason not adequately specified (I’m thinking perhaps it’s a form of absurdist camouflage – nobody who was seriously planning on attacking a city would begin the job by serenading it from the foothills), proceeds to evaluate the view in grim silence, keeping his observations to himself, then walks on, alone, in stony silence. Like you do.
This description pretty well sets the tone of the whole chapter. Roran is one of my favourite characters overall, except for the phenomenally poor decisions that he tends to make. I very nearly enjoyed this chapter – the juxtaposition of mysticism and cold steel seems like a theme with a lot going for it – but alas it is slightly spoiled by the fact that virtually nothing in the chapter makes any sense.
“Some five miles away, the plain arrived at the outer walls of Urû’baen.[…] Upon the wide battlements, he spotted ballistae and catapults mounted at regular intervals […] six tall, graceful towers—made of a malachite-green stone— he thought he saw the stumps of two more partially buried among the jumble of houses below.”
Nothing wrong with Roran’s eyesight, eh? Five miles away, say it again, five miles, and he’s already identifying ballistae and catapults, appreciating architectural features and engaging in materials science. That’s pretty impressive. An ideal human eye can pick out distinct objects at about a sixtieth of a degree (~one arcminute); your basic ballista is what, ten foot tall, so around three metres; you’re eight thousand metres or so away; maybe my maths is poor but I reckon a ballista would appear about 0.02 arcminutes in height at that distance. To give you an idea of the level of detail you might expect to see, let’s take a google-earth-eye view of Windsor Castle from five miles up, and see how much detail we can pick out of that.
Again I say it: Roran’s eyesight is phenomenally good.
“Roran resumed his weary march, following the winding road as it descended to the lowlands.”
Because if I were attempting an attack on a Very Scary City I would definitely begin by leading my entire force towards it down the road, my chief weapon being surprise… surprise and fear… fear and surprise… I’ll come in again.
“As he walked, he tried to figure out how best to attack the city.”
For all Roran knows, there’s an unguarded back door, or some other architectural feature that you can’t see from a single viewpoint five miles away, through which they could just sneak into the city under cover of darkness… what am I saying?! Sorry, must’ve been thinking of some other series. But fear not! Roran’s keen mind naturally picks out a superior alternative – “a frontal assault—a brazen fool’s charge over open ground toward walls too thick to breach and too tall to climb while archers and war machines shot at them the whole time.”
Having resolved the knotty issue of battle tactics to his full satisfaction, what of the psychology of the individual? What of the enemy? “Galbatorix had placed an earl by the name of Lord Barst in command of the troops within Urû’baen,” Roran thinks to himself, in a finely-handled display of exposition. “Barst might be a bastard” – see, it’s not just a clever name – “but he was a smart bastard.” Subtle.
“Thorn and Murtagh […] Eragon and Saphira will have to lure them away. Otherwise, [thinks Roran], we’ll never make it over the walls.”
Now, Roran has spent the last few paragraphs explaining that any direct attack on Urû’baen’s walls will be met with archers, war machines, rocks, pitch and boiling oil, so this observation would be eyebrow-raising if we’d actually taken the previous paragraphs seriously. But this is a book about dragons. Dragons, not boiling oil, war machines, rocks, archers or pitch.
“Roran felt bitter anger and resentment welling up inside him. He hated that he was at the mercy of those who could use magic. At least when it came to strength and cunning, a man might make up for a lack of one with a surfeit of the other.”
…for example, a man who has never heard of intelligence-gathering or subterfuge might depend on a frontal assault – a brazen fool’s charge over open ground…
“Frustrated, he scooped up a pebble from the ground and, as Eragon had taught him, said, “Stenr rïsa.” The pebble remained motionless.”
Eragon is speshul, self-inserts the author through Roran’s inner narrative, fearing that the reader might have forgotten at some point during the last few hundred words.
There’s a deeply irritating sequence in this chapter: “the Varden did not have weeks’ worth of food. They had only a few days left. After that, they would have to starve or disband.[…] [Roran’s] wife and unborn child were with the Varden […]Maybe we should flee [thinks Roran]. It was the first time the thought had occurred to him. He knew there were lands to the east beyond Galbatorix’s reach[…]”
So, to summarise, Roran invited himself to a siege bringing dependents but neglected to bring any supplies, and is only now for the first time considering extracting himself from said situation by beginning a mammoth trek into unknown lands. With dependents and with virtually no supplies… Well, never mind logistics. I’m too lazy to bother rereading the previous books just for this, but it amazes me that he’s never once before even briefly considered the possibility that discretion might in some circumstances represent the better part of valour.
But back to the plot! What of politics? Interpersonal conflict? Contortionists?
“The fool [King Orrin] wanted to send a messenger to the front gates of Urû’baen and issue a formal challenge”
Wait, fool he might be, but isn’t there an interesting factoid in there somewhere? Doesn’t the need to specify the intention to use the front gate imply that there are back gates of Urû’baen? Oh great tactician…?
And heading briefly into deeply personal territory, folks, I’m not sure what to make of this:
“Jörmundur tucked his chin against his breast”…
In fairness, I realise that the intention is to use ‘breast’ as a synonym for ‘chest’. Nonetheless, to me this guy is either a gymnast or he has double-E-cup moobs.
Anyway, the rest of this chapter follows delightfully original ground. The non-Euclidian geography doesn’t improve; encamped within a mile of Unicode’baen, Roran observes that “their greatest foe was but a few miles distant”. Roran wins a contrived argument with King Arrogant And Unworldly Stereotype, engages in a little male bonding with a steely grizzled fellow tactician and master warrior, and then – in a manner faintly reminiscent of Enid Blyton – trots off for a pre-war picnic.
In conclusion, not the worst of chapters and in fact probably one of the better in a tactically and logically rather inept sort of way, but the subject has so much potential that it’s a little disappointing overall. Think what Tolkien made of Smaug’s attack on Lake-Town. It would work so much better if advantages existed for both magical types and people with less ethereal skillsets, if perhaps they could all be seen to contribute something, but instead everybody just seems to stumble round going ‘duh, what dis place?’ until (SHOCK SPOILER WARNING:) Eragon arrives to tell everybody what to do.
Chapter Fifty-Nine: War Council
We are told that the Eldunarí ‘fed [Saphira] a constant stream of energy, so she never flagged or grew tired’.
I think that this is an appropriate place to make my apology or express my sadness for taking so long to get this spork posted, but I fear that in trying to write or put words on a page I have found or discovered that the task of reading or parsing for comprehension this tripe or nonsensical mush leads or compels me to repeatedly smack or impact my head or skull against the wall or vertical support of my sittingroom or lounge until the blood or gore decorates the wallpaper or decoration in a characteristic splash or spread pattern or texture. If you get my point.
Put down the damn thesaurus. Please. To flag is to grow tired; to grow tired is to flag.
Anyway, the dragons also feed them memories. Lots of them. Including ‘ponderings concerning the workings of the world. The dragons possessed thousands of years of knowledge, and they seemed driven to share every last bit.’
May I take this opportunity to ask whether anybody on this community remembers Kenneth Che-Tew Eng and his ‘Dragons: Lexicon Triumvirate’? I am forcibly reminded of the dragon Dennagon, who
‘stood guard […] his green eyes fixated on a book[…], deeply engrossed in the physical and scientific laws it dictated.
“Interesting,” muttered Dennagon. “I wonder if ‘space’ actually exists?”‘
[Then, when attacked by a paladin, says:]
“Could you attack me later? I’m in the middle of a tome.”‘
When your dragons start reminding the reader of Kenneth Che-Tew Eng, you may be overdoing it.
‘The torrent of information was overwhelming; at times Eragon felt as if he was forgetting who he was, for the dragons’ memories far outnumbered his own. When that happened, he would separate his mind from theirs and repeat his true name to himself until he again felt secure in his identity.’
I’m sorry, I thought the point of true names was that they described what you were regardless of whether you liked it or not, what you were reading or who was filling your head with unwarranted exposition. Like rukoko wrote a while back, surely it doesn’t matter what state your brain is in at any particular moment; if your true name is a true name surely you can’t avoid being ‘secure in your identity’?
‘Over the centuries, their minds had changed; what was simple and straightforward for him often seemed complicated for them, and the same was true in reverse. Listening to their thoughts, he felt, must be like listening to the thoughts of a god.’
This whole segment brings us awfully close to the God Test trope, but then Saphira explains in the next few lines of dialogue that dragons are better than gods, leading us to wonder whether Eragon is not the only unbridled egotist in the metaphorical building. Then they have a vision in which they feel compassion to the tiny concerns of starlings, which, oh dear, I can’t even be bothered to psychoanalyse this. The Avengers did it better:
Thor: You think yourself above them?
Loki: Well, yes.
Thor: Then you miss the truth of ruling, brother.
Anyway, fortunately we escape the pseudo-philosophical claptrap at this stage – so back to the pseudo-military claptrap it is!
‘Umaroth said, Now you would be best served by studying the lair of our foe. This they did as Saphira descended toward the ground over the course of many leagues.’
Ten leagues is probably around 50km, by the way, depending on the definition. So forget what I said about Roran’s eyesight.
It turns out that Galbatorix is the guy responsible for the amazing Manhattan-scale architecture. What a shame that his careers advisor didn’t point him towards his true destiny. Blatantly the man is a frustrated civil engineer.
They park three miles or so from the camp and invite some guys to covertly join them, rather than going to the camp and saving everybody the hassle. Apparently this is because he doesn’t want to ‘blare the answer where others might be listening’.
Then, possibly because it’s been a whole couple of pages or so since the last picnic, Eragon and Saphira have an irritating bit of dialogue about whether Saphira is hungry or not (she isn’t; the Eldunarí have been feeding her energy, if you recall). But then Eragon has a snack, so presumably the Eldunarí haven’t been feeding him, which raises the question of how he’s spent the last two days on a dragon riding around the sky, apparently not eating anything, without getting low blood sugar and getting tired, cranky or just falling asleep. Also he listens to some worms for a while. I’m not sure why. Something about an early warning system. This was about the point in the chapter when I gave up and reached for a beer.
Queen Whateverhernameis’s outfit is approximately described, as is Arya’s and Blödhgarm. Basically they’re wearing fetish armour. Weirdly, he doesn’t tell us what any of them are wearing on their lower half – except for a sword, or in Blödhgarm’s case a small knife on a belt – so you’re free to imagine, as I do, that they all go into battle wearing pink tights and pointe shoes with satin ribbons tied in a neatly tucked bow.
Eragon flirts a bit with Her Maj. Orik arrives. Male bonding ensues. Then Roran shows up and asks Eragon to ‘“stop them from hearing us?” He motioned with his chin toward Orik and the elves.’
I’m just going to remind you that about a page ago he insisted on making a bunch of royalty walk three miles in order that he can avoid ‘blaring […] where others may be listening’ before I tell you what happens next: it ‘took Eragon only a few seconds to cast a spell that shielded them from listeners. “Done.”‘ Then why, Eragon, my dear idiot child, did you not just walk into the camp, cast a spell and talk to everybody right there? Why did you make them hike out in enemy territory where anything can happen, especially when the elves are only wearing corselets, assorted weaponry and possibly (at least in my head) ballet slippers…?
Roran-Eragon male bonding occurs over the King Orrin conflict. Roran explains how worried he is about Katrina, and for some reason Eragon does not go ‘why didn’t you leave your girlfriend somewhere which isn’t a war zone, then?’
Rent-A-Conflict Orrin shows up ‘with wine on his breath’. Eragon ‘had everyone swear oaths of secrecy in the ancient language.’ Exactly how does this work? If when Roran said ‘”Stenr rïsa” the pebble remained motionless’, then surely when a person with similar attributes says ‘I won’t tell anyone, promise, cross me heart and ‘ope to die’ in the ancient language, then it shouldn’t do anything?
Eragon channels Basil Exposition and shows them the Eldunarí. Orrin attempts to pick a fight. The dragons do a sort of Star Trek 5 Sybok – style mindmeld.
‘Blödhgarm stared into the air with an expression of joy and wonder, while Arya continued to kneel. Eragon thought he saw a line of tears on each of her cheeks. Islanzadí beamed with a triumphant radiance.’
Quote the worst ever Star Trek movie, bar none:
‘J’onn: I feel… as if a weight has been lifted from my heart. How can I repay you for this miracle?
Sybok: Join my quest.’
Nobody is concerned about being brainwashed. Everybody worships Eragon a bit. Eragon, noted military strategist, tells them how to take on Galbatorix and win. Having mistaken himself for Churchill, or possibly Charles de Gaulle, he also gives a little speech. Cue drama.
Finally, mercifully, we reach the end of the chapter.
Final counts –
Unwelcome philosophical interludes: 1.
Impossible geometries: 1.
Bizarre magical inconsistencies: 2