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Wizard of words writes away

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BETHESDA, Md. - Christopher Paolini looks a little like Harry Potter. And like the boy wizard, Paolini's bespectacled face and unassuming demeanor mask a magical life. But while Potter's talents are the fictional imaginings of J.K. Rowling, Paolini's talents are grounded in the real world.

At 15 he began writing Eragon, an epic fantasy that became a smashing success. Now, at 21, he has published his second, Eldest, which went on sale last week. Since then, thousands of fans have attended his library and bookstore appearances.

Slight of build and looking much younger than his age, Paolini is recognized by only a handful of fans as he walks through the Barnes & Noble bookstore here. More than 2,000 people are waiting for him.

When he's finally introduced, he's treated like a rock star. Many of his young fans are standing on tiptoe trying to get a better look. They're holding copies of Eragon and Eldest. Kids who had waited quietly for several hours, many with their noses in a book, are now hooting and clapping.

This isn't anything like the reception he received when Eragon was self-published in 2002. As a 16-year-old unknown author, he doggedly pitched his book at schools and libraries. Dressing in costume was part of his amateur marketing scheme.

"I wore knee-high black lace-up leather boots, black pantaloons, a big black pirate belt, a billowy red swordsman shirt and a black beret to top it off."

Now, just entering a room, wearing jeans and a black T-shirt, generates excitement. "It would take an act of God to get me back in that costume," Paolini says with a laugh. "I don't need to fight for attention anymore."

Eragon moved from a modest printing endeavor (10,000 copies) to a publishing phenomenon after the book caught the attention of author Carl Hiassen, who passed it on to Alfred A. Knopf in New York. It was republished by Knopf in 2003, and there are now 2.5 million copies in print. That's a big deal for a book written by an established author but a breathtaking and unheard-of success for a book written by a teen.

Eldest, the second book in Paolini's Inheritance Trilogy is No. 1 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list. It's the first book to knock Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince out of the top spot since Rowling's book went on sale July 16. There are 1.3 million copies of Eldest in print. Eragon has been published in 38 countries, and Eldest is available in 27.

If that isn't enough, the Eragon movie is in production in Budapest. Scheduled to be released next summer, it stars John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons and Djimon Hounsou.

After the success of Eragon, critics and industry observers asked: Is Paolini the "next" J.K. Rowling? Paolini says the comparisons are "a great compliment, but I don't write books like hers."

Some people say they shouldn't be made at all.

"Any kind of comparison to Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling is unfair," says Joe Monti, a children's book buyer for Barnes & Noble. "He has his own little halo and glamour separate from Rowling."

That glamour is part of the reason editors at Entertainment Weekly asked Paolini to review Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince earlier this summer. "He gave it an A-minus." The magazine hired Stephen King to write the review of Rowling's fifth book in 2003.

Not bad for a home-schooled kid from Livingston, Mont., who put his daydreams on paper just to entertain himself.

But reviews for Eldest have been mixed. Entertainment Weekly called it "mind-numbingly silly ... endless, overheated." Publishers Weekly described it as "phone-book-sized," having "a wealth of descriptive detail, mythic archetypes and prolonged battle sequences," but "readers who persevere" will be rewarded with "walloping revelations."

Kirkus Reviews calls the book "derivative" and "suffused with purple prose and faux-archaic language" but allows that it "holds together remarkably well."

Paolini says he prefers not to know what critics say. "Even positive reviews would make me feel self-conscious while I'm writing."

When he was 15 and started Eragon, he had just received his high school diploma. (His 19-year-old sister, Angela, the basis for the herbalist Angela in the series, finished at 14.) At that point, Paolini says, "I didn't have a lot to do. Dad felt I was too young to go to college; I didn't have a job, and the nearest town was some 20 miles away. I needed a way of entertaining myself. Writing was what I settled on."

A longtime fan of epic fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Brian Jacques and Frank Herbert, Paolini says his inspiration came from these masters of the genre.

"Since I enjoyed these books so much, I decided to try to write a story I would enjoy reading," Paolini says. "Eragon really is just my daydreams, stuff I wanted to be doing like running around fighting monsters and rescuing beautiful elves.

"And what I hoped, and what I still hope, is that within those familiar elements I'm able to provide a unique twist. If there's anything that's truly unique about the series, what I'm most proud of is Eragon's relationship with Saphira."

Eragon is a young man who finds a blue stone that turns out to be a dragon's egg. When it hatches, he bonds with the brilliant-blue creature known as Saphira. Eragon and Saphira help elves and dwarfs battle the "evil empire" and its cruel King Galbatorix.

Saphira is so endearing a character that Paolini says one fan warned, "If you ever kill off Saphira, I will hunt you down."

In Eldest, Eragon and Saphira travel to the land of the elves for training in magic and battle skills. Along the way, they encounter betrayal and danger.

In a way, Eragon and Paolini have grown up together.

"Eragon started as me but ended up evolving into his very own character," Paolini says. "Even as he has gone through his coming-of-age story, the process of writing and publishing these novels has been my own coming-of-age story. There are parallels between my own experience and Eragon's, but fortunately, I don't have people charging at me with swords."

At this point, we know much more about Eragon than Paolini. When asked whether he's dating, he says, "That's private." Asked whether he is religious, the dutiful son replies, "My mom always told me never to talk about religion or politics." As to what he's doing with the money he's earning from book sales, "I don't want to spend it. The main thing is security."

Paolini still lives with his parents, Kenneth and Talita, and when he's not touring or writing, he follows his own rather solitary interests: hiking, camping, practicing yoga and forging his own knives, swords and chain mail.

"My home life has stayed pretty normal through all this," he says. "Mom and Dad keep the storm at bay."

His parents now spend much of their time handling the business side of their son's success. "It's gotten so big," Paolini says. "I just can't handle it by myself."

Last week, he kicked off a grueling book tour that takes him to 18 states and Canada. In October, he'll promote his new book in Europe.

When the book tour is over and some of the excitement dies down, Paolini will sit at the computer in the small room off his bedroom and begin writing the third book, as yet untitled, in the trilogy. There's no scheduled release date.

For now, he's busy enchanting his fans. Logan Hamilton, 13, of Washington, D.C., has read Eragon 20 times and Eldest five times. He considers Paolini a great role model. "He shows us that if you do what you want, like writing, you can succeed if you really try."

For Paolini, hero worship is difficult to put into context. "I've never gone to a regular school. I've never held a normal job. I just don't have anything to compare this to. But my parents have taken pains to make sure I understand exactly how unusual this is."

For kids such as Abagail Bleakney, 11, of Columbia, Md., seeing Paolini is a fantasy come true. While she waits for him to sign her copy of Eldest, she artfully sketches a portrait of Saphira. And tonight she will listen to a bit of the audio version of Eragon.

"Every night, for the last two years, I listen to a little of it before I go to sleep."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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