Books

Return of the King – A Review of Christopher Paolini’s Long-Awaited Return To Writing

The Inheritance Cycle was an integral part of my youth and adolescence. It helped me realize what I liked and disliked in books and literature, and as such still remains a bit of a touchstone for what I love in the fantasy genre. Sure, it took much of its structure and concept from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but at that early age, I would have to. It felt like the kind of book that I myself would have written. Eighteen years later (God I’m old), Paolini has moved from Fantasy into Science Fiction with his new novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. This transition feels extremely natural for Paolini and showcases his growth as a writer with a story, theming, and even prose that is much more complex than his previous books. Like Eragon before it, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars begins its story as a melting pot of influences and derivations, ranging from films like Star Trek and Alien to literature such as Leviathan Wakes and Ender’s Game and even to video games like Halo and Mass Effect. This is perfect for someone like me because, just like The Inheritance Cycle, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars feels very much like something I myself would write to.

Despite the obvious influences, there’s much here that’s entirely unique, such as the primary alien species the protagonists come into contact with; the Wrenaui (or the Jellies, or Graspers, depending on who you talk to in-universe) and the Maw (or the Nightmares or the Corrupted also depending on in-universe sources) as they are known. Unlike most other science fiction tales, the Wrenaui and Maw take completely different shapes than those other alien races. Instead of traditional bipedal (and romanceable) shapes like Vulcan, Asari, Sangheili, or Turians, the Wrenaui instead resemble a more aquatic and more intelligent mix of the Hanar from Mass Effect and the Rathtars from Star Wars. The Maw is like space-faring cancerous tumors of anger and hatred and serves as an excellent contrast to the other two much more organized factions.  Paolini’s worldbuilding and creature design are creative and well done, being unique enough to stand out but not so different that newcomers and hardcore fans alike will be lost in the natural order of this universe.

One of the biggest contradictions in the book’s structure. On the one hand, the structure is a total mess, with events and characters building up on top of each other in overlapping arcs that resolve and restart with little indication, and often fake an ending several times. This results in a plot that is sometimes hard to track and a bit overwhelming.  On the other hand, however, this messy structure leads to a welcome uncertainty on where the story would go and then wrap up. It kept hitting unexpected corners turning on to new plot points and minor twists that were always interesting. The unresolved plot points of the Staff of Blue, the Seeker, and the Seven Seeds of the Maw leave just enough open for sequels but aren’t egregious enough to feel like sequel bait (except for maybe the latter).

At the end of the day, Christopher Paolini’s new book is just like his Inheritance Cycle. Taking derivative elements and allowing them to blossom into something truly unique. Overall, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is a fantastic and the very definition of “never a dull moment.” The book’s biggest issues are never bad enough to bring the whole experience down, and I’m eager to see the directions this new “Fractalverse” takes. For fans and non-fans alike, this book comes highly recommended. You’re in for a hell of a ride.

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