The Sword of Shannara has had a place on my bookshelf since I was ten; it’s one of the books that makes me happy just by sitting on the shelf. Somewhere between first being given a copy of Sword and now, I read the rest of the original series and odd books from the series that followed before losing track of the saga. The news that MTV is making a miniseries of The Elfstones of Shannara delighted me, but also made me think about how long it has been since I read the book in question. So, I dove into the original series, adding The First King of Shannara and Dark Wraith of Shannara because, even though they were written later, they are part of the same package—also, once I discovered First King of Shannara, I had to read it to find out how the whole sword business got started.
It is always dicey rereading a childhood favorite after some years. Sometimes the book stands up to memories, sometimes it doesn’t. I have to say, Sword of Shannara stood the test of time pretty well; it remains an adventure story with plenty of action, memorable characters, and an ending I have never seen duplicated. Elfstones of Shannara also held my attention quite well, while Wishsong of Shannara had me wanting to know “What happens next?!” at every turn.
Perfect? No, but really good reads.
And now that you know that, you should be aware that there will be spoilers from here on out, significant ones for Sword and mild ones for the other books, so if you are the sort that minds them, go read and then come back to tell me where you agree or disagree.
The Sword of Shannara has been criticized often for its ties to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And, yes, the similarities are there, particularly right at the beginning when the Skull Bearers show up to drive the reluctant Shea and Flick out on their adventure. It’s also possible to trace some character types as well, and a desire to resemble The Lord of the Rings is the only reason I can think of for the repeated insistence that Shea is the “little Valeman,” there being absolutely no other indication that Shea is particularly short or slight in comparison to the others. That said, the book is different enough in tone and content to make it stand on its own merits, and by the second half, it takes off into its own territory, introducing Panamon Creel and one of my favorite characters, Keltset. Also, I adore the power of the Sword of Shannara once it is revealed. Truth is such a simple weapon and perfect for the situation.
By Elfstones of Shannara, Brooks has built his world and is ready to take off in his own direction, building a new mythology and further defining his Elves while he is at it. Elfstones hits the ground running—there’s only the briefest refusal of the call on Wil’s part, and then the action starts. It has a nasty group of enemies, and some dramatic battle scenes. That last is one of the reasons Elfstones is not my favorite book in the series: Brooks writes great battles, but I am not much of a one for reading fights, so after the first few, I tended to start skimming, meaning my reading went something like “Battle, battle, battle, yup, still fighting, lots of bodies—Did Stee Jans survive? What about Ander?” and so on. More bloodthirsty readers are likely to be happier.
Wishsong of Shannara is my favorite of the Shannara books so far, partly because of the brother-sister tie between Brin and Jair, and partly because this is where it really feels like Brooks has settled into his writing. It has by far the strongest and most interesting cast of characters—seriously, how can you not like the crazy group Jair ends up with?—and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. It also keeps going right up to the very last minute. The majority of the fights here are small-group battles, during which Garet Jax is awesome. Rone Leah doesn’t do too badly, either.
First King of Shannara is, I think, best read after Sword. Like many prequels, the real joy is finding out the backstory—who made the Sword? When? Why? Whose idea was it? And so on. I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as the others—though that is partly because my favorite character died too early.
Dark Wraith of Shannara is the series only graphic novel (so far). It picks up not too long after Wishsong and follows Jair and Slanter (yay!) on a further adventure. The art is strongly manga influenced, and done in grey-scale. It is great to see what the werebeasts look like, and the Croton Witch is creepy, but I did have to wonder why Kimber was running around dressed in cave-girl clothing. Fur bikinis may be stylish, but they aren’t terribly practical, and Kimber did strike me as a practical sort. I am not sure if the peril posed here quite ties in with Scions of Shannara, at least so far (yes, I’m trapped in the Four Lands again!), but it does make clear once again that the Druids have one nasty security system for Paranor Keep. You do not want to trespass! There is also a section in back where the author and artists write about the process and some images-in-progress.
The books are set in post-apocalyptic North America, long after the Great Wars have destroyed the old civilization and left people to rebuild. Technology is limited, although there are occasional reminders of the past still littering the area and occasionally threatening travelers. This also means that four of the major races, the trolls, gnomes, men, and dwarves are human—and recognize one another as such, which eliminates the possibility of random cannon fodder (Where the Mwellrets come in is unclear, though if I remember one of the earlier prequels correctly, they’re also of human descent). When Menion has to shoot a gnome to cause a much-needed diversion, he thinks of it as shooting a man from behind, not as killing a pesky nuisance. This is not to say that the races do not war among themselves or with one another—they do; both Men and Gnomes have, at different times, fallen prey to the the Warlock Lord, and there are indications that they managed some wars quite on their own, though the Druids stepped in and created some kind of peace. It does mean, though, that there is no race tagged “Naturally Evil” to blame everything on.
It also makes for a much-altered landscape. There are the peaceful, quiet places where people live in villages or towns, and then there are the terrible wastelands formed by the Great Wars and the Wars of the Races, dangerous and full of odd mutations. Brooks has a gift for describing these places, making them come alive as the travelers move through them.
Also it rains a lot in the Four Lands. A whole lot: Brooks’ characters spend a considerable amount of their travel time cold, wet, and miserable. Sometimes, the storms do come in handy as they hide people from their enemies, but they are still cold, wet, and being poured on, drizzled on, or shivering in mists just before or after rain.
Brooks’ prose is workmanlike, getting the tale told with no fuss or feathers. Like many authors, he does have his quirks. The biggest one is a tendency to describe something in slightly differing terms two or three times in the course of a paragraph, as when Brenan explains, “I made myself as invisible as the air through which they flew. They saw me and saw nothing. I kept myself shrouded in magic.” (First King). Also, once he grabs onto a descriptive term, he seldom lets go. Shea, having once been termed “the little Valeman” will be “the little Valeman” from there on out; once Amberle is described as having a “child’s face,” that is how she described; she will always “raise her child’s face” rather than just look up. This can get awkward, as when Brin has to fight off some men at a trading center. From then on out, she remembers them as the “men from west of Spanning Ridge” and thinks of the fight as “the encounter at the Rooker Line Trading Center with the men from west of Spanning Ridge” (Wishsong), which is quite a mouthful. Once noticed, it is hard not to keep seeing.
Here is where Brooks shines. The books are full of memorable characters, several of whom I got quite attached to—which is dangerous, because while he is not unduly bloodthirsty, Brooks is not afraid to kill beloved characters. It also does not always happen to the people I could predict it happening to or at the times I expected, so I could not guard against caring.
Allanon, of course, is a major favorite. I remember being annoyed with him the first time I read the books because he was not acting like a proper mentor—my ideas at the time being Gandalf and Ben Kenobi who, while not always entirely forthcoming (“From a certain point of view” indeed!) were generally even-tempered and willing to answer questions. Allanon, on the other hand, is downright cranky. He sometimes has these melancholy moments where he muses to himself that it would be nice not to have to keep so many secrets, and he realizes that people would trust him more if he did not keep them—but he does keep them. Then he gets angry when people ask quite reasonable questions and, quite predictably, don’t trust his evasions. But there is enough from his point of view, and enough evidence that he really is trying to save everyone on a tight schedule, that he emerges as a strong favorite (in books; I wouldn’t want him showing up on my doorstep any more than the Ohmsfords did). Also, this read-through I realized that, unlike Gandalf, he is not immortal and, unlike Ben Kenobi, he doesn’t have the assurance of an easy-going afterlife that involves popping in on students for a nice chat whenever he feels like it. No, Allanon is mortal, and the only reason he lives long enough to trouble three generations of Ohmsfords and Leahs is that he sleeps between emergencies. There is no stopping by Hobbit parties to let off a few fireworks for this guy; it’s “save the world!” and then sleep until the next emergency wakes him up—and, by the way, he sleeps somewhere near the Hadeshorn, which has got to be the gloomiest of all possible places to take a nap what with the deadly water, black rock, and barren landscape. Based on Wishsong, he is actually slightly easier to talk with as a shade, though the conversational opportunities are limited.
Then there’s Keltset, the mute troll who overturns Shea’s expectations about trolls—and mine too. He’s clearly a man of culture and courage, and the more we learn about trolls in the Four Lands, the more it is clear that they are intelligent beings. And Slanter, another unexpected character, a gnome who turns out to be a staunch friend of Jair’s. Or there’s Stee Jans, who was the primary reason I read battle scenes at all (I had to see if he came out alive; also, he was magnificent), and Garet Jax the Weapons Master always looking for the fight that would really challenge him (since he defeated a kraken, that’s saying something). And Whisper and Rumor, the Moor cats. Also Brin Ohmsford and Menion Leah, two of the strongest and most interesting leading characters.
You may have noticed that there are not too many women on the list of favorite characters(or may not have—the names are not too clear, gender-wise). The books are kind of a mixed bag here: Sword has an all-male cast until near the end, and even then, Shirl really doesn’t get much too do. Elfstones has two major women and a couple of nasty villainesses, but Brooks is still finding his feet here: Amberle makes one of the most courageous decisions anyone could make, but spends most of the book being described in terms of her innocence and her “child’s face,” while the second major female character, Eretria, is the sultry, sexy one. One cannot just dismiss her as a flat stereotype: She handily saves herself when Wil won’t, and then proceeds to save him, Amberle, and the mission more than once, but the choice of types is notable. The witches, too, are pretty standard jealous types who have fought for centuries because of a man they both wanted. There are good points about all of the characters, but a lot of the characterization leans heavily on types. By Wishsong, though, Brin and Kimberle are written like the male characters—as people (yet another reason I like Wishsong). Also, they become and remain good friends. Both may exasperate me at times, but it is in a familiar “Why is this person doing that?” way, as good characters do.
Getting back to Stee Jans and Garet Jax: How much credit do you give authorial rumor? Usually, I figure the author knows what is going on and credit the rumors, but this time, it gets confusing: The World of Shannara has an intriguing entry mentioning a rumor that the two might be one person, which is kind of a neat idea, but that contradicts other rumors in Wishsong that, if true, make it quite impossible. Stee Jans already in the Free Legion at approximately the same age Garet Jax was over helping a family defend against gnome raiders. Also, Garet Jax helped Ander Elessedil train his army while Stee Jans played a vital role in the fight against the demons—and the king would notice if the same guy turned up twice under two different names. There are more than a few veterans who would have known as well. So, which rumors do you credit? And how? The author ought to know, but in this case he’s not telling!
Having read these, I have gone ahead and picked up The Heritage of Shannara series as I might as well read things in order rather than piecemeal wherever and however I find them. This means I have had the joy of rediscovering a childhood favorite coupled with the dismaying realization that, after years of avoiding long series, I have just gotten myself enmeshed in one that is twenty-nine books long–thirty come June when The Darkling Child comes out–plus I am not sure how many short stories. Sure, the individual series break down into finished units, but all the same—oops!
How about you? When did you first discover the Shannara books and which are your favorites to date? What do you think of the rumors Brooks plants in the books?
Just the List
Or, you could get The Sword of Shannara Trilogy and have the main three in one go. Personally, I prefer three manageable books to one brick (even in ebooks, one has a better sense of progress), but people vary.