Paolini has done an excellent job of fleshing out an entire world, including back history and well-described characters that you might only meet once. That, to me, is one thing that sets a good epic apart from weak look-alikes. Even if a character is just around for a few pages, it pays to flesh them out. The story will be better because of it and the reader will become that much more enmeshed in it.
The story starts, as many fantastic tales do, with an unlikely hero finding himself suddenly thrust into a dangerous new situation. Eragon finds a curious stone that ultimately turns him onto the path of a Dragon Rider. This puts him at odds with many different political (and apolitical) factions in his world, including King Galbatorix. When the Razac, ethereal henchmen reminiscent of Tolkeins Ring Wraiths, kill Eragons uncle, he sets out on a path of revenge.
He finds friendship and comfort with his dragon, Saphira, an old storyteller named Brom (with many secrets to tell and hide), and an unlikely ally in Murtagh, a fellow fighter. A likely love interest, Arya, is also dreamed of, found, and saved by Eragon, though he soon finds her perhaps more than he had even dreamed of. I expect to see some interesting revelations about Murtagh in the coming books.
The epic battle scenes will definitely remind readers of Tolkein and the relationship between Eragon and Saphira will call up memories of Anne McCaffreys Pern novels. However, it doesnt borrow too heavily or too often.
I highly recommend this novel to serious fantasy readers of any ilk. It isnt for the casual, wishy-washy fantasy reader who only reads a fantasy when they cant find anything else to read or for people who stopped with Cinderella. This is an epic tale and you have to be ready to get sucked in for the long haul. I, for one, am anticipating the next book in the series: Eldest.