Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: The Sword of Shannara

Author: Terry Brooks
Genre: Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 726
Warnings: Death, some imagery of violence death, Tolkien-clone
Rating: 2.5/5

One of my friends suggested I look into Terry Brook's Shannara book series, but it took me no small amount of time to decide which book to start with. After a bit of research I gave up trying to be systematic and settled on "The Sword of Shannara". It's the first book in the series Terry Brooks wrote, although it takes place towards the end of the universe's chronology.

I swear, "The Sword of Shannara" is a clone of Tolkien's style, archetypes and plot. This goes beyond the basic similarities most high fantasy books share. Some of the similarities were positive, but Brooks also copied some of my least favorite aspects of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The wholesale borrowing of major plot points is the most obvious.

The plot is as follows: A mysterious wizard druid arrives in the peaceful Shire Shady Vale and informs Frodo Shea that only he is qualified to destroy wield the legendary One Ring Sword of Shannara so it can't be used by the evil Sauron can be used to kill the Warlock Lord. He and a few close companions travel to an official meeting in Rivendell Culhaven, the home of the elves dwarves. Along the way they are harrowed by Ring Wraiths Skull Bearers. There the main characters band with a group of humans, elves and dwarves to quest for the ring sword. During their travels they shortcut through the cursed mines of Moria Hall of Kings. After a certain amount of running around which I can't be bothered to remember, the party gets split into at least two groups culmination of the story. The majority of the humans, elves and dwarves converge on the kingdom of Rohan Callahorn, where they must free the king from the evil influence of Wormtongue Stenmin. Then his people retreat to Helm's Deep Tyrsis, a highly fortified keep where they attempt to hold back the forces of evil. After a long and painful siege, the elven army comes to their rescue, and the army of Mordor the Skull Kingdom is defeated. At the same time the main character and his stalwart sidekick Samwise Panamon Creel travel to the heart of enemy territory with their guide Gollum Keltset to destroy the ring use the sword.  After a certain amount of soul-searching, their mission is accomplished, and everyone who's still alive goes home!

To be fair, I did simplify some points to emphasize their similarity and skipped over some of the more boring fight scenes in LotR. However with only mild embellishment most of the major plot points of "The Sword of Shannara" are a name-change away from those in "The Lord of the Rings". On the plus side, that meant the plot was solid, and could be described using words like "epic" and "legendary". On the down side, I've already read LotR. For anyone else who also just happens to have read Tolkien's trilogy, there will be zero sense of suspense generated by Brook's book. For instance, when the heroes traveled into the Hall of Kings, I already knew there was a terrifying monster lurking at the end. The surprise? It was a water-monster instead of a fire-monster! There is very little different material, so I'll try to avoid revealing any more of it.

I can't fault Brooks for using the same species list as Tolkien, since almost every high fantasy writer draws from said list. I believe there are good fantasy books that feature species aside from Elves, Dwarves, Trolls and Gnomes out there. I do! Brandon Sanderson, back me up here.

Another characteristic of Tolkien's that I would have preferred Brooks left alone was his overly wordy prose. It took me almost a year to finish "The Two Towers", because I just lost the motivation to read it three times and didn't come back to it for months. Brook's first book is a little better, but I found myself skipping over huge chunks of descriptive paragraphs to get to dialogue. My interest in hearing more about some of the characters who diverge from Tolkien's template warred with my disinterest in his prose. The result was that I finished this book, but I didn't like it all that much. I don't want to read any more novels written by Brooks unless I can get some assurance he stopped trying to be Tolkien.

Some of the areas I thought Brooks shined as an author was when he left Tolkien alone. I enjoyed all of the new characters Brooks created, like Panamon Creel, and Menion Leah. I thought they were most interesting personalities because they didn't have analogues to Tolkien's characters and because Brooks spent more time fleshing them out. I also liked that "The Sword of Shannara" is set on a post-nuclear-apocalypse Earth, which was a relatively new story idea in 1967.

If you liked Tolkien, you'll like Terry Brooks. You'll definitively like "The Sword of Shannara" for all the same reasons "The Lord of the Rings" tickled your fancy. Enjoy rich fantasy worlds, with an author who dreamed up a timeline lasting thousands of years before or after the book you're reading? Like the reassuringly familiar structure of high fantasy, the straightforwardness of Good versus Evil in Black Cloaks? Have a crush on elves? Good, you should read this when you have some free time. If you've already read LotR and you don't want to read it again, stay away from this. Go read some science fiction, for goodness sake.

Questions, Comments and Kvetching Welcome~

1 comment:

  1. I'm rereading the Sword after almost 25 years. I remember enjoying it the first time round. This time, with a quarter century of life, reading, writing, and the study of the basic rules of prose, I'm aghast at how badly written Sword actually is. I could (and did) live with a rip-off of LOTR, but what kills me is the disastrous quality of the writing, the flat characterization, and (arrrghhh) the floating point of view that jumps willy nilly from character to character, sometimes withing the same paragraph. Anyone teaching a basic writing course could use this book as a guide for how not to write.