Monday, July 23, 2012

Book review: "The Sword of Shannara" by Terry Brooks

When I started buying books from Amazon (also, kudos for this), I checked Wikipedia and other resources for examples of epic fantasy, especially for longer series. In such way I found about "The Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan, "Malazan Book of the Fallen" by Steven Erikson, "Belgariad/Malloreon" by David Eddings, "The Rifttwar Saga" by Raymond E. Feist... There are many series, most of which I haven't still read, although for the most I have plan to read them eventually. Since I was self-restricted on one book per month, I had much spare time, so I would usually read detailed synopsis, sometimes even for the whole series. One of these was the whole "Shannara" series by Terry Brooks. This was one series that I didn't really like from what I read about it - it all smelled me too much of sucking money from the fans (something like Feist). Repetitive stories, jumping back in time, mixing it with urban fantasy... But the first few books sounded OK, and I found it mentioned a lot on blogs I follow, so when an e-book containing first three books of the series (the original "Shannara Trilogy") become available (for fair price, even) I decided to buy it. Even if it was bad, it would be an education experience - reading on of the classics of fantasy. This is my review of the first book, "The Sword of Shannara".

Since this is one of classics and it was written in seventies, the usual fantasy plot was somewhat expected. Two brothers, Shea and Flick, are living peaceful lives in Shady Vale. This is all interrupted when they are visited by Allanon, who they know only as wandering mystic, historian and philosopher. Allanon explains Shea, who was adopted in Ohmsford family, that he is a direct and only living descendant of ancient Elven King Jerle Shannara, and us such he is the only person in whole world capable of wielding his heritage, the Sword of Shannara. This is necessary because an old enemy of mankind, the Warlock Lord, is again on rise and is threatening to destroy all civilization. So Shae must journey to Paranor, old Druid Keep, to find the Sword and defeat the Warlock Lord. On his journey he is joined by his brother Flick, their friend Menion, and later by Balinor (Prince of old Human Kindgdom of Callahorn, dedicated to guarding the Human frontier), Handel (a Dwarf), and Durin and Dayel (two Elven nobles). And of course, Allanon, who is in fact the last Druid. On their journey they are opposed by Skull Bearers (black winged minions of Warlock Lord), Gnomes and Trolls.

If this reminds you to "The Lord of the Rings", this is because "Sword of Shannara" is pretty much blatant (and worse) copy of it. There is an escape from remote and peaceful valley without guidance, scary black pursuers with blood-freezing screams, a party composed of all free races... There is even a tentacle-monster living in a lake and a journey under a mountain. I know that many fantasy series found their inspiration in LotR (some would say even my beloved WoT), but not in this way and not this much. Later in the book things start moving off from Tolkien and start sounding original and interesting, but damage was already done at this point.

One good thing that Brooks does is in making a setting with interesting history, one that is connected to our present one. The bad side of it is that it is revealed in a big and obvious info-dump on the very beginning. It would be much more convincing if he had found some gradual way to reveal it. Also, there is very little sense of novelty in this book. Our heroes visit the villages of Dwarves and Gnomes, but we found almost nothing about them - like they are not different and they visit them every day. In fact, everything I know about the Gnomes in this book is that they are "yellowish" and "smaller than man" - almost nothing about their physical look, society, intelligence, habits... Similar for other races.

I usually refrain from second-guessing the characters, because this is the death of books (you know, why just they didn't kill Sauron or destroyed the Ring and saved themselves from troubles), but this book has so many problems that I just couldn't stop myself. Most of it sounds unconvincing and inconsistent. Shae founds out a complete reversal of everything he knew and believed, immediately accepts it and calmly proceeds with planning what next he will do. Handel is taciturn, moody, cheerful, grizzled, scared of basements (a racial trait of Dwarves!!!), brave, masterful tactician... I know people are complex, but not this much. All enemies are stupid, clumsy, gullible and incompetent - while our heroes are lucky, smart and dexterous. 

Then there are problems with Brook's writing. First, enemies are totally indistinctive - there is only two named enemies, one of the being the main big bad. Constant in-paragraph changes of POV are slightly irritating, especially at first. I couldn't make a mental picture of any characters - I couldn't even determine the age of Shae and Flick (somewhere between 16 and 36). Using contemporary expressions like "robotlike appearance" and "Spartanlike barracks" didn't help. My favorite was description of Hendel stalking on his "catlike feet" - a Dwarf with a "catlike feet"!!!

Tolkien received some objections for lack of strong female characters, but here there is absolutely no female characters in first half of book (except two (two!) mentions of Hendel's absent wife and Dayel's absent fiancée each). No one has wife, mother or daughter - especially not Gnomes, Trolls or Dwarves (there was some vague impression that Humans live in families, so I presume they include women). And when that one female character appear (her name is Shirl Ravenlock and she is a redhead Princess - I didn't know ravens are red) her only purpose is to be an object of love and something to protect for one of main characters. She actually says that her only wish is to support him (from away, I presume).

In conclusion, "The Sword of Shannara" is a terrible book, worse even than those by Terry Goodkind (if there wasn't Terry Pratchet, I would say that the name Terry was cursed). You know that feeling when you are read a good book and you just can't leave it without reading another page/paragraph/sentence. Well, I didn't felt in once while reading this book. What's worse, I am now stuck with reading the whole trilogy.

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