The first novel I ever read by fantasy author Terry Brooks was The First King of Shannara. Which I may have mispronounced, as “shuh-NAIR-uh” somehow sounded more elegant to me than “SHAN-uh-ruh,” and it looked like it should be pronounced elegantly. I have no idea which, if either, pronunciation is truly correct, but I apparently disagreed with the audiobook version I would listen to at a later year.
I still pronounce it the elegant way.
So, besides names which can, at times, be a teensy bit tongue-twisty to get right the first time, I’ve usually liked Brooks’ novels. Mostly. Well, I say “mostly,” but there seems to always be something I dislike with each book, and as I’ve read most of the Shannara series as a whole, there are a few lessons to learn from what he doesn’t get quite right.
First King turned out to be a prequel to the first Shannara trilogy, and I am glad I read it first. Not only may it well be the single best novel I’ve ever read by Brooks, but it hooked me so thoroughly that I tend to find myself in a forgiving mood when reading his other works.
Not to make it seem as though there is too much to forgive! There is plenty of excellent material! In the extended Shannara series alone, the heroes all undergo journeys, facing dangerous, parasitic villains and overcoming a variety of obstacles, both physical and mystical. There are occasional nods towards issues of race and prejudice, there are legendary figures in the background doing what they can to save the world, and the entire world is, well, magical. I truly enjoy these novels.
But, there are, as I said, lessons to learn from the mistakes.
For instance, I learned from Terry Brook the necessity of hiding the plot twists. Yes, have them. Yes, have them make sense during a second reading, when we already know what’s going to happen. Yes, even sprinkle hints of what’s about to happen, so the keen reader may form suspicions (this is called engaging with the audience, I believe). But no, do not telegraph them so obviously that we see them coming twenty chapters beforehand!
Two examples of this both involve a betrayal, and neither one is remotely surprising. Not when one chapter ends with the mysterious, impassive character, “she watched them with a gaze like ice,” or something like that. Then, later in the same trilogy, we watch the evil mastermind plotting how to approach each of the protagonsists, who are proving dangerous thorns in his side. One involves sending the female protagonist a friend, someone to grow attached to and protect, who can get close to her. So, when such a figure appears, we know what’s going on. Neither betrayal was surprising, and that took a great deal of the fun from it.
Another complaint I have refers mostly to the first trilogy. The first novel included a background which included the modern world undergoing some apocalyptic event, and the ensuing events gave rise to the ancient antagonist and the ancient power capable of defeating him. The second novel went further back, to deal with a more ancient power of good and evil. I groaned and rolled my eyes when the third novel went with an even more ancient pairing. From this, I learned that variety truly is the spice of life and literature.
The next quartet, Heritage of Shannara, was better in that respect, including the overarching villains called the Shadowen as well as major side-villains. It was a more cohesive story, overall, and one which followed several threads as the heroes fought on multiple fronts. The conclusion felt a bit lackluster, though, particularly as they were so far apart that their adventures barely affected one another. In Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, at least we knew that the entire Fellowship and the armies they led were fighting just to give Frodo a chance to get at Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring. In Heritage of Shannara, there didn’t seem to be such a strong connection. Everyone was just off doing their own thing, and then this groups joined together and defeated the enemy at a moment which was most serendipitous for the others.
I pause a moment to reemphasize: I liked reading these novels. There is a great deal to be learned from what is done right, as these are, for the most part, masterfully-crafted tales.
Which is why is annoys me to see these flaws. It’s like finding fingerprints all over a master photographer’s work, or if Leonardo da Vinci splattered a horrid orange on Mona Lisa’s face and wasn’t quite able to fix it, or rubbing a masterfully-crafted wooden frame created especially to hold such a painting and getting a splinter, or laying down on the softest bed you ever encountered and finding a tiny pebble had managed to get lodged in the fabric and is no poking you in the back.
It’s beautiful work, overall, and highly enjoyable 99% of the time, but that little imperfection can annoy the crap out of you.
As a final lesson to learn: finality.
The Shannara series as a while can be described as loosely-connected epics. One need not read the entire series to understand what is happening in any given arch, but it is a single, continuous storyline. While each one may be entertaining, there is such a thing as beating a dead horse. With at least twenty-six novels published so far and one or two more coming in the near future, and my interest waning before we reached the tenth novel, it feels more like that horse’s corpse as been reduced to shattered bones, the flesh being long gone by now, and still with no sign of slowing down.
Lesson learned: know when to end a series, and leave it ended. Each of the Shannara series, and several of the novels themselves, end in such a way that they could be the final conclusion. But no, there’s always another one, following the same plight of the Ohmsford family struggling to save the world from something that is absolutely evil and wants to eat the world and everything in it.
And that is a rather sour note to end on, isn’t it? I’ll have to come back to this sometime and extol the virtues of the Shannara universe – also things we can learn from – more thoroughly, so I don’t feel so guilty about the veritable shredding of Terry Brooks’ work this has become.
I can say that his Landover series is plenty good, arguably better than the Shannara fiasco, partially because it doesn’t take itself so seriously. I mean, we have a businessman who buys the kingship of a fantasy world he’s not even sure exists until he finds himself there. I haven’t read much of it outside The Black Unicorn, but I want to read the whole thing, if only so I can read a single scene I’ve heard of, where an old wizard and an old dragon “duel” in a hilarious fashion that reduces them both to weary laughter, and one gasps out, “We’re getting too old for this!”
But based on Black Unicorn alone, it was an enchanting tale with a surprisingly complex plot for a tale told so simply, with a gripping lesson for the main protagonist to learn: to open his heart to the woman he has come to love.
So, while I must admit the flaws of Brooks’ work, I want to emphasize how enjoyable it is anyway. And it is, it really is. No matter how I roll my eyes, it’s a fun ride, and one I’ll happily go on again.