The Short Version: Five years have passed since Arcannen Rai tried to take over the Druid order – and since then, he’s been in hiding. But after those who protected him are brutally slaughtered and a new user of the wishsong is discovered, he puts a new plan in motion and only Paxon Leah stands in his way…
The Review: I hate to say it, although I think nearly every Shannara book I’ve reviewed since starting this blog has been leading to it… but I’m just about done with Terry Brooks. Even by the “not great” standards of the last few books, this book feels like Brooks isn’t even trying anymore. Reliable entertainment has descended to being neither reliable nor entertainment.
This idea of a trilogy of standalone novels seemed, in The High Druid’s Blade, to have provided Brooks a little wiggle room to just bang out a single story. But where that book’s efficiency felt like a positive attribute, it lands in the negative column here in The Darkling Child. Brooks uses the same dual/duel protagonists (Paxon Leah and Arcannen Rai) and you absolutely have to have read the prior novel to know some of the things that are happening here / why people have certain grudges and who any of the returning characters actually are. But I found that I just didn’t care, about any of them, this time around. Brooks’ bag of tricks has finally bottomed out.
The wishsong makes its umpteenth appearance here, this time in an orphaned young man who has become a roving minstrel type. He is apparently some grandchild of Redden & Railing Ohmsford, just as Paxon Leah is – meaning that, for all the hubbub around their being no Ohmsfords in these books, Brooks isn’t actually willing to remove the Most Important Family in the Four Lands from his work. But, more importantly, the reason(s) for introducing this character were unclear: Arcannen wants the wishsong, we know. But his master plan in this novel could easily have been accomplished without it – and so he falls into the worst of villain clichés, making things unnecessarily difficult for himself, even if he succeeds.
And mostly, I just struggle to care about whether or not he does succeed. Plenty of fantasy novels have trafficked in antiheroes or protagonists whose perceptions of right and wrong are just as gray as they might be in the real world – and it feels like a slap in the face for Brooks to put so little effort into this character, creating essentially a Raistlin Majere ripoff. Ditto the wooden heroics of Paxon Leah – who, by the way, is absolutely the dual protagonist of this trilogy; don’t let anybody convince you that Brooks has devoted the trilogy entirely to Arcannen’s story. His motivations are boring, his dialogue is wooden, and he seems like your generic Conflicted Hero Figure.
In fact, all of the characters here are both boring and so stock that they might as well’ve wandered over from Central Casting: the young troubadour with the voice that magicks people and he feels bad about it, the headstrong Druid, the dastardly leader of the government’s black ops unit, the brassy courtesan who isn’t as daring as she thinks she is… I’ve seen all of these people before and so my brain was able to shade them in a little bit as the book went on, but I realized that Brooks was counting on that. He did the bare minimum of work, sketching out shadows that just fit into molds that the reader then has to run with. I’m fine with minimalist description, etc – this is just shoddy writing, cutting corners and hoping you can skate by on the reader’s good graces.
Even the plot and the action sequences seem to be cookie-cutter. The black ops group of the Federation (because, of course they have one) – the guys who you call in to do the stuff you maybe want to disavow, who are merciless and just bad – have wiped a village off the map that was reportedly harboring Arcannen. It was, but he survived and he’s pissed that they killed those who were kind to him. The entire book is a revenge plot against those people, with the twist of maybe also getting this wishsong kid on Arcannen’s team before the Druids can get to him. For what, is unclear. I spent the whole book wondering why Arcannen was doing these things and hoping that Brooks wasn’t trying to use this as some sort of allegory for some of the current war-stuff happening in the world.
I will say this: I also spent much of the book trying to put together a new map of the Four Lands in my head. Longtime readers (and if you look at the never-all-that-accurate map in the front of the book) will recall Eldwist and the Tiderace, scene of one of Brooks’ best world-expanding moments in the whole series… well, apparently the Tiderace isn’t a lake or small sea or something up there in just the NE corner of the Four Lands. Apparently it is the Eastern Ocean, because it runs all the way south. This is news, of course, and ordinarily I would be excited about expanding the map of this land I’ve wanted for so long to know so much more about. But now, seeing how shoddy this novel was, I don’t even want someone else to explore the Four Lands further, let alone Brooks. I think the place has worn out its welcome.
Rating: 2 out of 5. My problem with this is that Brooks is a smart, talented craftsman. And people adore him – the jacket of this has a rave from no less than Karen Russell – and he has created some lasting fantasy moments. But he has been shameless about reusing the same ideas over and over again and now he’s not even bothering to flesh out the characters or the plots or anything. This book felt like a contractual fulfillment sort of thing, a money grab. I honestly don’t know if I’ll pick up the final book or anything from Brooks’ forthcoming final Shannara trilogy. And that really hurts.