The Short Version: Science is the order of the day in the Four Lands and magic is on the wane. But after one of the few remaining Druids discovers a clue that might lead to the missing (and possibly mythic) other Elfstones, the Ard Rhys gathers a small company and sets off to find them – in the hopes of saving magic and protecting the legacy of the Four Lands.
The Review: It’s been, I think, seven years since Terry Brooks last pushed the Shannara series forward in time – and I don’t think anyone was all that upset when he opted to take a break and explore its history. The High Druid trilogy was derivative and disappointing on just about every level and it left a bad taste in one’s mouth – the question of “where could it go next?” seemed wearying instead of exciting. The belated-named Genesis of Shannara series was more immediately intriguing, pulling the (excellent urban fantasy) Word & Void trilogy into direct connection with Brooks’ more well-known and more epic series. But then the last two books, the Legends of Shannara duology, left me scratching my head. They added very little to our knowledge of Shannara history and they didn’t exactly develop anything new – and, a realization that has only come about on completion of this newest novel, they were both pretty poorly written. They just felt tired. So, yeah, I was waiting on this one – I didn’t rush out because I was worried I’d be let down.
And in the beginning, I was wondering if that would be the ultimate result: if this would be the end of my relationship with the series. But I think Terry’s time away from the “present tense” of the series did, in fact, do some good – because while it took a little while to get going and get me truly interested, I was tearing through pages by the end and while I’m excited to get the two final thirds of the trilogy in this calendar year, I am officially impatient for them.
See, the thing about this book is that there’s a more knowing and even sometimes winking eye cast towards the expected components of the story. There is always an Ohmsford involved in these magic quests – but instead of it coming about in some sort of happy circumstance, it’s mentioned directly and perhaps not entirely un-sarcastically by the shade of Allanon. The logic of the “let’s go off on this crazy quest RIGHT NOW!” decision making is challenged, seriously and consistently, and while it rarely actually affects anything, it’s nice to see a bit of logic from the supporting cast. Most importantly, the plots (and there are several) all genuinely seem important: nobody is playing second fiddle here.
The Elfstones quest is a little quixotic, to be sure – and the Ard Rhys, the only character left over from the High Druid trilogy, is kind of annoying in her insistence that they must go off willy-nilly and get everyone killed. Seems to be lacking in a level of forward thinking for a leader… but we have an excuse to revisit the Forbidding now, hopefully in a more interesting way than when last we were there. Meanwhile, we’ve got an assault on Paranor (that was genuinely thrilling and also terribly worrisome) and a dying Ellcrys – so it’s like we’ve got elements of some of the best Shannara stories in the past coming together to make something new – as opposed to just reheating basic fantasy plotlines. You get the sense, at the end of the novel, that this is truly a watershed moment for the Four Lands. It’s history in the making, not artificially but genuinely.
That said, I had a pretty huge problem with one aspect of Terry’s writing that I’d either never noticed before or that had never been a problem before (editing issue, maybe): repetition. It started innocently enough – when a character, one of the Druids, was described as being draped in a chair like a scarecrow… and then, the next time he was in a chair, as a straw man. The description (admittedly one of my favorites in the English language) appearing twice felt jarring and weird. But then it kept happening – not just with description, either. We’re told that Redden Ohmsford was named after Redden Alt Mer, given a description of who he was and what role he played in history – nothing wrong with that, that’s actually helpful to remind readers of what’s happened before. But then, the next time Redden Alt Mer is referenced… we get the same description of who he was and what role he played, just phrased a little differently. The same pieces of information are given to the reader several times over, with just vague twists on the wording. It’s incredibly irritating and leads a reader to believe that Brooks doesn’t have faith in the intelligence and/or memory of his audience – but how did an editor not pick that up and say “hey, can we cut down on the repeating descriptions?” It pulled me straight out of the book every time it happened – and, I realized by the end, it happened quite a bit.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I’d like to give it a 4 – on Goodreads, I probably will – but I’m being a little more judicious here. This is a bold start to a new trilogy, one that takes its time starting up but then races towards Book Two – but it also has some serious flaws in the writing style and I’m also just genuinely not ready to trust this series all the way. It might be the best book since perhaps Antrax, certainly since Armageddon’s Children, but it still feels a little stiff in the joints. The pieces are all in place to make this trilogy this best cycle since the Heritage quartet – but Brooks will have to build consistently and strongly upon this book’s foundation in order to make it so. Here’s hoping – because by the end of this book, I was happy to be in the world of Shannara again and I’m looking forward to feeling that way again.