(All books in the trilogy listed at the end of the review)
Its taken me a while to get around to reviewing this particular series, mainly because there’s so many books involved here, and unlike say the Nightside series, each one is complex, stand-alone yet intrinsically linked to the next one. It can be divided up though. For the sake of this review, I’m not going beyond the first Shannara series – The Original Trilogy -, which comprises three books. First, The Sword of Shannara, which was published in 1977 and became the first fantasy book (first work of fiction, actually) to appear on the New York Times Bestseller list and stayed there for over five months. This was followed by The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, both of which in fact are a lot better than the first, but more on that later. In the Original Trilogy the books are set a generation apart, following the exploits of the Ohmsfords, the most significant family in this and the entire Shannara series. Except in First King Of Shannara, which was written much later but is fact a prequel to The Sword of Shannara. There are a lot of other books in the series (after all, it did begin in 1977), 22 in total, I think, which might make it the longest contiguous (and I use that word deliberately, to avoid arguments about continuous with R.E. Salvatore fans) series in non-pulp or franchise epic fantasy, although Raymond E. Feist might just be ahead by now. Anyway, love or hate Brooks, he’s been consistently prolific for a few decades now. Incidentally, he also wrote the book adaptation of the Star Wars film The Phantom Menace
I’ll admit here that The Elfstones of Shannara was the first proper epic fantasy book I read, at the tender age of thirteen, I think. It was fantastic (couldn’t resist) and along with Jason Cosmo and the Wheel of Time series, hooked me to the genre for life. I read the other two books in the series soon after, and years later, when I would recommend the Shannara series to people I would often be surprised by their disdain for it. By then, of course, thanks to The Wheel of Time series and others, as well as the explosion in popularity of Lord of the Rings, the epic Manichean fantasy genre had become much more mainstream. They both follow the standard “Cycle of Adventure”, which the basis of all Manichean (good guys vs total world conquering evil) fantasy. David Eddings, Terry Goodkind, Tad Williams, and Raymond E. Feist and most popular fantasy writers of the late twentieth century do the same. The only thing which a purist (or critic) might argue is that Terry Brooks isn’t strictly speaking high fantasy, as his world of the Four Lands is actually a very-post apocalyptic Earth.
But it wasn’t until I actually read Lord of the Rings that I realized how derivative the first book - The Sword of Shannara - really was. We’ve got Elves, Dwarves, a young unassuming hero (Shea Ohmsford) thrown into the arduous quest before he can even begin to realize what he’s got himself into, and, of course the mysterious sorcerer/enigmatic wanderer, in the form of Allanon, the last of the Druids. All the rest’s there too, the strong protector(s), the formation of a fellowship to carry out the quest, and, of course, the evil half-dead mastermind who lives in the forbidden far north. I think the only novelty was the use of Trolls and to a lesser extent Gnomes as villanous but intelligent, organized races, with complex politics, and capable of swift thought and great compassion, unlike Tolkien’s mostly mindlessly villainous Orcs. And that’s only in comparison to Lord of the Rings, which is one of the most derivative half-baked turkeys in existence anyway.
So should that put you off reading the Original Trilogy? Well, perhaps you can skip over The Sword of Shannara. The first few pages are interesting, because Allanon tells Shea the entire history of the world – the Great apocalyptic wars of men, the emergence of the races, the rise of the druids – in order to make him understand the depth of evil they face in Brona, the Warlock Lord and villain-prime, and his slave Troll army, poised to invade the Four Lands and destroy all that is good forever. But then, despite being a decent and occasionally exciting story, it becomes by today’s standards overly long, rambling, and a very predictable yawn-fest at times, especially if you’ve had the misfortune of reading Lord of the Rings. The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, on the other hand, are quite another matter. In fact, I would highly recommend starting with The Elfstones of Shannara. It’s the best book in this series by far, and quite possibly the best book in the entire Shannara oeuvre in terms of sheer dramatic excitement, complexity, high quality warfare, and the other great themes – love, loss and the discovery of self. It’s a lot darker as well, and the villains far more frightening. Not having read The Sword of Shannara matters little, as with the exception of Allanon and the Elven king Eventine, no other characters reappear in any significant way, and there’s always the Wikipedia plot summary if you really want to know what happened. The author himself, by the way, wanted the film adaptation of the series to start with The Elfstones of Shannara, the rights for which are currently owned by Warner Brothers.
Still, you can’t deny the impact of The Sword of Shannara. Along with Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, it put epic fantasy firmly on the literary map, establishing it as a viable commercial genre of fiction (much to the delight of the publisher Lester Del Ray, who started laughing all the way to bank for decades) and set the stage for all the greats that were to follow. So, like Lord of the Rings, love it or hate it, if you’re into fantasy, no matter where and with which writer you started, you owe something to Terry Brooks. The remainder of this review will largely be about the other two books in the series, The Elfstones of Shannara in particular, which, as I’ve said before, is one of the best classical fantasy epics written, (if the 1980′s can be considered classic) so if you want to know why you should read them, click on read more to find out. Will contain the occasional spoiler, though, so I’d recommend the books instead.
TEoS. Really, even looking back now, I can see why as a kid I was thrilled, frightened, mesmerized, and supremely entertained all at once. How is TEoS better? Well, the Elves play a much more important role here. In both Lord of the Rings and The Sword of Shannara they’re relatively peripheral. I mean, they show up when needed most and are pretty damn good with a bow and arrow, but you don’t really understand them, their emotions, their politics, or their lives. The Elfstones themselves are magic seeking-stones, capable of finding anything as well as destroying enemies not of flesh and bone, but, of course, the ability to wield them depends on the strength of the wielder. This poses little problem in The Sword of Shannara, where they are given to Shea Ohmsford (the main protagonist, or Frodo, if you prefer), by Allanon, the last of the Druids and the mystical wanderer of the land. Shea, being half-elf, is able to wield them much more easily than his grandson Wil, who is the primary protagonist of TEoS. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
TEoS opens in the Elf capital city of Arborlon, in which are The Gardens of Life, wherein no tree is more important than the Ellcrys, formed in a time before history, before the Great Wars of men, when all that was good and all that was evil locked in an epic battle. Good won, but being good, it couldn’t just exterminate all the evil creatures. So they (and they meaning mostly the Elves) created the magical Ellcrys, to hold and preserve the wall of the Forbidding, behind which all the creatures of evil, or demons, were permanently imprisoned. Or so they thought. For the Ellcrys is not immortal, and the Forbidding has begun to fail. By the time Allanon, the last Druid, realizes this and arrives at Arborlon to warn the Elessedils, the ruling family of the Elves, and Eventine, their king, he is already too late. The Forbidding has already been breached, and the most powerful of the demons, the Dagda Mor, along with a couple of well chosen henchlings – the Changeling and the Reaper (their names should be self-explanatory) – have already escaped and killed the Chosen, the guardians of the Ellcrys. And a total breach is near, for the Ellcrys is clearly dying and “The War of the Forbidding” imminent.
Allanon, Eventine Elessedil and his younger son Ander agree that only one course is open to them. That lies in persuading Amberle, the king’s niece, who was a Chosen but ran away, to return. As she is now the last of them, any hope of a rebirth of the Ellcrys lie solely with her. Allanon, realizing that he cannot help Amberle on the arduous journey to find the Bloodfire, wherein the seed of the Ellcrys must be placed, enlists the help of Wil Ohmsford, the nephew of Shea and a healer working with the gnomes of Storlock, the best healers in the land. Allanon explains to Wil that he must be there to aid the Elven army when the Forbidding finally crumbles, for they will need his magic if they are to survive until Wil and Amberle’s return. He gives him the eponymous Elfstones, knowing that Wil is even less elf than his grandfather, and will have much more difficulty using them but he has no choice, as they are the only real protection he can give them against the demons, particularly the Reaper, which will not stop till it has hunted them down and killed them.
Here’s what I like about the book. It’s essentially split in two, one part detailing Wil and Amberele’s quest for the Bloodfire, and the second the defence of Arborlon and the Ellcrys against the invading army of the demons once the forbidding collapses. Both Amberle and Wil are reluctant heroes. They question themselves and each other a lot, and after the first time the Reaper catches up with them and kills all their escorts, are left alone to continue the arduous journey. That amount of death, including significant characters, is part of the much darker side of TEoS. There is a lot of death in this book, especially on the good side, and a whole lot more malevolent presence in the villains, unlike TSoS or LotR. In those books, the villains are mainly abstracts, who barely appear until the final confrontation. In this case though, Wil and Amberle are desperately racing to find the Bloodfire while being chased by the genuinely scary Reaper, Eventine and Ander have to deal with the reality of there being a demon in Arborlon itself, for nothing else could have killed the Chosen. And once the Forbidding comes down, and battle is truly joined, The Elfstones of Shannara truly becomes epic. The War of the Forbidding includes some of the best battle sequences ever written of human/elf vs magical creatures, as the hopelessly outnumbered Elves and their handful of allies – The Dwarves, the Free Corps of the Border Legion of the men of Callahorn, and a few others I won’t give away (all right, the Trolls, who were the slave-villains in TSoS) – fight desperately to protect Arborlon against the demon onslaught. Eventine is injured, and Ander reluctantly has to take command. Along with Allanon and Stee Jans, the leader of the Free Corps, they devise increasingly desperate stratagems to hold the demons at bay, all the while praying that Wil and Amberle will return safely.
Meanwhile, Wil and Amberle’s quest is fraught with more than a little peril, as they brave the Matted Brakes swamps, the wild town of Grimpen Ward, enter the Wilderrun, and come up against a varying host of villains, from the greedy Rover leader, Cephelo, to the Witch sisters Morag and Mallenroh, all the while being chased by the Reaper. It’s one of the more exciting quests I’ve read, and is laced with poignant irony, as Wil often blunders and has to make difficult choices about leaving behind people who’ve helped him, particularly the dazzlingly beautiful Rover girl Eretria, as he falls more and more in love with Amberle. His stubborn streak doesn’t help either, and almost gets him killed on more than one occasion. His use of the Elfstones too, is hampered by his lack of belief in himself, and once he does manage to use the magic, he knows that its burning through his blood has changed him forever in someway. The consequences of that, though, don’t become apparent until the sequel, The Wishsong of Shannara.
How the quest turns out and how the battle ends would be too much of a spoiler here, and I won’t give it away. Suffice to say it’s not your typical happy ending, far from it. The good guys win, of course, but it’s dark, and poignantly sad. This isn’t common in most fantasy epics of the time, nor is the death of major characters. There’s a lot of loss, and eventually healing and rebuilding to go through. Some of that carries over into The Wishsong of Shannara (TWoS), where again the loss of major character forms a main part of the story arc.
In TWoS, Wil’s children, Brin and Jair, are the main protagonists. Wil’s use of the Elfstones altered him in some way that gave his children the use of the Wishsong, which again, is pretty much self-explanatory. They treat it like a toy, only using it to play, until once more the last Druid Allanon appears again mysteriously out of nowhere. With their parents gone, he explains to Brin and Jair and Rone Leah (The Leah’s are basically the protector family of the Ohmfsord family) that it is much more than that, it is the only weapon that can be used against the new evil threatening the Four Lands, the powerful magic book of the Ildatch (which was what subverted the rebel Druid Brona and turned him into the Warlock Lord, the villain of The Sword of Shannara). It now has subverted more followers, and they are now Mord Wraiths, or the Black Walkers, They have taken control of the Gnome tribes and intend to first destroy the Dwarven nation, and poison the rivers they protect to kill the entire land. Only Brin can stop them, or at least so Allanon says. So reluctantly, accompanied by the highlander Rone Leah, (who is a descendant of a Menion from TSoS, who was one of Shea’s protectors) Brin sets out on her quest, to find the Ildatch buried deep in the heart of the Maelmord forest. Meanwhile Jair is beginning to have adventures of his own, which link up with Brin’s quest later. Jair is tasked by The King of the Silver River (a faerie creature from before the time of the Great Wars) with saving his sister and curing the poisoning of the Silver river by the Mord Wraiths. It’s a little more complicated than that, his quest involving as it does a battle with a Kraken at Capaal, the Dwarven dam fortress (one of the best sequences in the book, beats the Kraken from Pirates of the Caribbean hollow), running through Gnome army enemy lines, being kidnapped and held in prison by the Lizard Mwellrets, and being saved repeatedly by Garet Jax, the greatest weapons master of the Four Lands, who becomes his protector (the Ohmsfords, naturally, need a lot of protection). Oh, and befriending a Gnome who turns out to be the salvation of them all.
TWoS isn’t quite as dark and unpredictable as the TEoS, but it more than has its share of dramatic and epic moments, and a fairly monumental death. Its well worth reading, both as a sequel and a stand alone fantasy epic of considerable merit in itself. The sequences where Allanon battles the Jachyra, where Brin figures out how to enter the Maelmord, the difficult choices she has to make once she realizes the Wishong is powerful enough to kill are all compelling and good reasons for me to repeatedly read this book.
I hope this review persuades you that it’s worth it too.
BOOKS IN THIS TRILOGY:
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org