MTV’s upcoming Elfstones of Shannara miniseries got me to rereading the early Shannara books again, and I seem to have gotten myself well and truly. Unlike the initial Sword of Shannara trilogy, where each book stood well on its own, the four Heritage of Shannara books are really one big book divided for reading convenience—or not, if you get the collected edition. Roughly speaking, they are divided by character, with The Scions of Shannara being more or less Par and Coll Ohmsford’s tale, The Druid of Shannara focusing on Walker Boh and Morgan Leah, The Elf Queen of Shannara being about Wren, and The Talismans of Shannara reconnecting the three, tying up the entire set of quests. I
The shifting focus from book to book makes for some occasional awkward moments when it comes to character balance with characters disappearing for long stretches when in someone else’s book: Wren, in particular, pops up just long enough in Scions and Druid to verify that she’s still around and readers shouldn’t forget about her. The other characters each share enough time together to make their occasional absences from the text less awkward.
Prose-wise, Brooks is still tending to use a lot of short declarative sentences, which leads to a choppy rhythm at times. He also remains fond of saying the same thing in a slightly different format two or three different times. He has, however lost the need to stick to the same description for any person or group of people.
As always, Brooks’ characters are a big strength in the books. Heritage of Shannara has a set of eccentric, memorable, and active main characters. The series begins with Allanon calling Wren, Par, and Walker to him, sending them dreams and ultimately grabbing the former druid, Cogline, to go fetch them. Allanon, being a shade, cannot just go fetch them as he would have in his livelier days. The funny thing is, he doesn’t make any mention of Morgan Leah when he’s making his call. You’d think that after Menion and Rone (Sword of Shannara and Wishsong), he would have a higher opinion of the family. Like his predecessors, Morgan comes along anyway, out of friendship. Like his predecessors, he starts out hotheaded and—through a significant tempering process—grows up along the way. There’s no chance that any of the group would have succeeded without him—he meets each of them at a critical time and spends long periods with both Walker and Par as well as forging his own path.
Par starts out quite a lot like Shea, and remains largely reactive throughout the story. He and Coll have a great sibling bond, though, which makes for a powerful family story. Looking at the last seven (!) books, I’d say Brooks is fond of sibling pairings. He certainly writes them well.
Wren and Walker, though, really go through the wringer and are two of Brooks’ memorable characters. Both are stubborn and have a lot of mental anguish to sort through before they get their jobs done. Wren is admirably focused and determined, making tough decisions. She also has a knack for making good friends, though her judgment is not flawless. Walker alternates between being understandably upset and being someone I just wanted to shake into some sense. I do appreciate, however, that what finally gets him started is good old curiosity.
Quickening, a significant character in Druid, although not a major character, I found problematic: She exists to be gazed on, with three men constantly admiring her perfect features etc. There is a good reason for never presenting her point of view, but it also makes her more of an enigma than a character, one of my least favorite ways of presenting a woman. The resolution of her plotline is also less than satisfactory.
As in the previous books, there is a lot of time spent underground in sewers and forgotten tunnels of unspecified purpose. I have to admit, such travel has a long and honorable tradition—given the time the books came out, it is probably part of what started the tradition. Also, I can’t flat out say that it is unrealistic. I’ve read Peter Ackroyd’s London Under after all, as well as a few other indications that even our contemporary world is a bit more hollow than we give it credit for.
Otherwise, the setting continues to be varied: Cities have their own atmospheres and there are a variety of natural environments, some beautiful, some nightmarish, all clearly described. Oh, and it still rains a lot in the Four Lands. You really wouldn’t want to be outside without an umbrella.
Brooks continues to develop the dangers of magic, picking up on the thread begun in Wishsong of Shannara. It will be interesting to see how this develops once technology also becomes more of an issue: After all, the Great Wars were horrific because scientific development allowed for weapons of mass destruction. If magic is just as prone to running out of control, what is the solution? Also, how is it that the Druids mostly manage to keep things under control? In any case, everyone involved in Heritage of Shannara has to make tough decisions and weigh the dangers vs. the benefits of using any power they have.
Plotwise, the books are highly readable and (as I have found) quite addictive. The periodic disappearance of various characters may be a problem, but there is no question about the pacing: Brooks knows how to keep things moving and how to end a chapter on a cliffhanger. It was incredibly hard not to skip ahead to find out how a given problem would resolve itself rather than moving over to the next point of view. I admit, I did not always resist the temptation.
I was initially inclined to be snarky about Par’s quest to retrieve the Sword of Shannara–people really ought to stop misplacing valuable artifacts–but locating it ultimately turns out to be the least of what is going on there, so I ended up having to retract my snark. Wren’s quest to find the elves and return them to the Four Lands and Walker’s quest to re-start the druids never did look easy or typical.
This finishes the first stage of the reread. The next stop, an entirely new-to-me book, Ilse Witch, the first book in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series.
The Heritage of Shannara all four books in one!