The Short Version: Paxon Leah lives a pretty quiet life in the Highlands of Leah, running the family shipping business and keeping tabs on his younger sister. But when a mysterious stranger kidnaps the girl, Paxon takes off in pursuit – and discovers that his life is destined to be far less quiet than he’d imagined. With the Sword of Leah at his side, he joins with the Druids to get his sister back from this devious evil before it’s too late.
The Review: I think most people were pretty excited when Terry Brooks announced that this penultimate Shannara trilogy would be a trilogy of standalone novels, loosely linked by a few recurring characters. Things had been getting predictable to the point of my wanting to give up on the series as a whole. Sure, the epic Heritage Quartet (not to mention the first three novels and aspects of the Voyage trilogy) would always remain firmly idolized in my memory – but the magic has been fading. But the idea of a book without an Ohmsford, one that would be tightly focused on a smaller aspect of life in the Four Lands, sounded intriguing. And while the most touted aspects of this new trilogy feel somewhat exaggerated (this novel doesn’t quite stand on its own, there isn’t an Ohmsford but redacted-for-spoiler, the Druids continue to be more susceptible to moles than CTU, etc), it genuinely did feel like the first time in a long time that the Four Lands were still a place worth visiting.
The running time on this one is slim, with a page count clocking in at just over 300 and a cast of characters that barely ticks into double digits (and that’s counting secondaries). That’s actually one of its biggest assets: there isn’t much time to do anything other than get down to business. We do get some background about when we are – just over a hundred or so years from the end of Witch Wraith – and there’s some of the continued progression of the overarching magic-v.-technology storyline, but for the most part the focus is tight. We don’t need to be introduced to the Four Lands yet again, we don’t need to deal with intricate family backgrounds, we don’t need to worry about who or why or how: we’re just doing the what. As such, Terry’s real skills as a storyteller (as opposed to a world-builder, although he’s quite good at that too) kick in and the whole thing is over in the space of just a few breaths.
And yet it doesn’t feel rushed. A tighter focus seems, for Mr. Brooks, to lend itself to sharper writing overall. Descriptions are leaner, the dialogue snappier and more to the point, and while there are clearly moments where the trilogy-maker slips in (implications of romance, of further developments for the Druids and Leahs, and so on), it’s all remarkably tidy by the end. You are in and you are out. Could you ask for more?
Well, sure. As mentioned earlier, the Druid Order continues – it’s well into the Fourth iteration now; I mean, we’re talking many hundreds of years – to be really just the worst at vetting their friends and members. And the machinations of the Federation have never felt totally grounded in reality, although I appreciated the more blatantly mustache-twirling villainy of the mysterious Arcannen. I mean, the guy is snarky and runs a place called Dark House and might as well have a white cat – why anyone would trust him is an utter mystery, but he makes for a good ALL CAPS VILLAIN. And in a short, fast story like this, that’s really all you need. He seems to clearly be playing a longer game and perhaps that’s how these three novels will be intertwined: the villain bouncing around the Four Lands, dealing with different people and all leading up to what Terry has said will be the last trilogy. That could be interesting: the villain as the connective focus.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. But no time for conjecture. No need for it, really, either. Instead, I’m happy to just have my interest in Shannara stories restored. This was, by no means, a particularly strong entry in the series – but it’s the strongest in a while and it shows Terry flexing writerly muscles that had seemed long atrophied. He can introduce a cast of characters and set the various plot points in motion like few others in the biz these days, so it’s nice to see him do it without getting caught up in the same-old-same-old. Here’s hoping the rest of the ‘trilogy’ remains as standalone as it has been touted – for when you’ve only got one book to live and die by, it apparently keeps the writer on his toes.