The Short Version: After the explosive climax of Bearers of the Black Staff, the forces of good are left to attempt to regroup as a new evil – a demon of old – appears from the wilderness to bring destruction to the remaining races inside the valley. Phyrne, Princess of the Elves, is locked away on suspicion of regicide, Pan and Prue are separated, Deladion Inch and Sider Ament both dead…. and the Trolls are massing to march on the passes that protect the way into the valley. One thing’s for sure: there won’t be any going back to the way things were after the battle shakes out….
The Review: My big question, upon the completion of this book, is “why?”
Why did Terry feel the need to write this particular duology – or at least why did he feel like it should only be two books? I know I wrote a year ago that I was pleased at the impressive pacing of Bearers - but that pacing left me a little cold here. Things sped along at a near-gallop for the entire book, which is always welcome… but I realized that I learned very little about the world or the people in it by the end of this book. There were some welcome returns – the Elfstones, of course, and the caves under Arborlon full of ghosts and shades – and some interesting moments (Phyrne riding the dragon was actually a high point in Shannara imagery) but… how does this advance my knowledge in any way?
The “Genesis” trilogy tied The Word & The Void into Shannara – important to the grand scheme of things and also interesting in its own right. But that series ends approximately 1500 years before First King of Shannara, making this book approximately 1000 years before that novel. How the world transforms over those ensuing 1000 years are far more interesting a concept than the story we ended up getting, the story of how the wards failed and the valley was returned to a blighted and reconfigured world. It’s great to see the origins of the Trolls, certainly, and I’m not saying I didn’t want to know something connective about how the worlds of Elves and Men returned to the Earth… but I don’t actually know that. This book SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
ends with Pan and the Orullians (characters I wish we’d seen more of – if there’s one thing you can always count on Terry Brooks for, it is engaging and awesome support characters) setting out to scout the world outside the valley, searching for a new home for both Elves and Men. If anything, this series felt much more like an extension of the Genesis trilogy than an actual bridge into Shannara proper. And this does not sit entirely well with me. I’m not against stand-alone stories that add some color to the world… but those stories ought to come when there’s nothing further to be told in the grand scheme of things. I know that Terry’s heading back to the future with the next trilogy, going some hundreds of years into the future past Straken… but at this point, I barely remember that (rather weak) trilogy and where the Four Lands stood at that time. I’ve read the plot summary for The Wards of Faerie, too, and I’m terrified that it’s going to be a rehash of yet another “where are the Elfstones? no one trusts magic! evil evil magic, even though it’s wielded by the good guys!” Shannara novel. And that’ll be the last straw for me, I’m sorry. Is there nothing else to be told in that world?
Anyway, off my high horse: the book itself is well-written and exciting. The characters, while not as fully developed as in the past, are still engaging. The ragpicker was an interesting villain and his machinations, albeit a bit rushed, were suitably devious. The resolution was a little rushed, of course, and I was surprised to see Phryne go through so many rather ridiculous shifts in emotion and thought. She seemed more mercurial than I’d thought she was – but I was also pleased to see Terry branch out with some of his characterizations. I don’t remember another Shannara book that dealt with love and sex in such a way as it did between Phryne and Pan. Pan’s confusion was well-rendered and wholly realistic – this is, perhaps, because (as Xan points out at one point) women are crazy and make no sense. Good to know that thousands of years from now, after civilization has been destroyed and rebuilt, some things will not have changed.
Rating: 3 out of 5. A wholly average Shannara novel. It’s a bit rushed, a bit “why is this here?”, a bit… well… ‘meh’ by the end of it. But even an average Shannara novel is better than most fantasy novels of today. Terry is an excellent writer and even when he sits in a comfort zone – which, you cannot deny to me, this absolutely was – it’s still an enjoyable read to pass the time. Much like that feeling on the first morning you wake up buried in covers because the cold has come in and you just feel so incredibly comfortable. That’s a Shannara novel – and I hope that, at least, it will always provide that measure of magic. But deep down, I miss the really wonderful originality of those earlier novels. Perhaps his time away from ‘present’ Shannara will have reinvigorated his writing – but we’ll have to wait some time to see…