Book Review: Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.
So in ye olden Fantasy Land of Elves and Dwarves and such, a mysterious wizard recruits a young man of the humblest of origins to go on a great quest. This quest is of the utmost importance, centering around an ancient magical artifact of great power that will cause untold destruction if it falls into the wrong hands.
The wrong hands being, of course, that of Ye Olde Dark Lord, an ancient and terrible wizard with armies of monsters at his command, including a special cadre of semi-undead servants.
The young man sets out on this journey in the company of his practical, loyal, but arguably dim best friend. They’re soon joined by a motley collection of Elves, Dwarves, and disguised princes. The group tromps on, gets chased around by the bad guys, and then they’re ultimately separated. The wizard fights a scary winged monster, then falls into a pit of fire and is thought lost by everyone (only to show up again sometime later).
The exiled prince returns to his homeland, just in time to defend it against an assault of the Ye Olde Dark Lord’s armies- however, he also has to deal with scheming ‘advisors’ who contest his claim to the throne.
Meanwhile, the young man, separated from his friends, presses on- crossing paths with a wretched soul who also lusts for the book’s MacGuffin. They travel through a bleak and blasted land, to the very stronghold of Mr. Dark Lord Guy, at which point the young man has a crisis of faith, but the Dark Lord winds up destroyed anyway.
That’s the book I just read.
I’m not saying that Terry Brooks ripped off Tolkien wholesale here, but come on. There are few points where he tries to change things up, but only in the barest fig-leaf of ways. I wonder if Brooks ever sat down with his publisher and explained it. “Instead of a wizard, it’s a mysterious DRUID! And instead of NINE guys on a quest, there’s only EIGHT of them! And instead of the dark lord having an army of trolls and orcs, he has an army of trolls and GNOMES.”
I consider myself something of an armchair academic- I’m not publishing anything (unless this blog counts), but I still like to think critically about what I read (sometimes), and I like to read ‘milestones’ in a certain genre from time to time, to get an appreciation for the literary history of genre fiction, or something.
The Sword of Shannara isn’t the first fantasy novel, and it’s not even the first bad fantasy novel, but upon its publication in 1977, it kicked off a surge of interest in the fantasy genre that we’re still riding today. If you’ve ever read a book with a title that boils down to “The NOUN of the MADE UP WORD,” you owe it to Brooks. Bonus points if it’s got a map on the inside cover.
So yeah. I read another of Brooks’ Sha-na-na books some years ago, and it was fairly standard fantasy- you had some guys sailing around on an airship looking for magical magcuffins, and…honestly, that’s all I remember about it. But again, I’d heard The Sword of Shannara was kind of a noteworthy text, being the first of the M. Night Shamalyan series, so I figured I’d give it a go.
And…yeesh. I guess I’m just a discerning (read: jaded) reader, but this whole book was a slog to get through. I could’ve almost looked past the paint-by-numbers Tolkien derivativeness if Brooks did something new and interesting with the genre, but…he doesn’t. The book is long, the prose is flat, and the characters are dull and forgettable. I had to force myself through to the end, just to justify the time I’d already spent on it. If anything, this book gives me a far greater appreciation for J.R.R. Tolkien’s body of work.
See, there’s a lot of legitimate criticism you can apply to The Lord of the Rings, but at least you have to admit the history of the setting is solid. Tolkien plotted out histories, wrote songs, hell, made up entire languages when he created Middle Earth. Brooks, on the other hand…well, let’s look at the map.
As soon as I saw that map I was like “Dude, Terry. You can name one corner of the map after a direction. One. Anything more is just lazy.”
On top of the blandness of the setting, there’s the fact that a lot of the characters are inexplicably dumb. For example:
In the first chapter, the mysterious Not-Gandalf tells Not-Frodo he’s come to his humble inn to look for Not-Frodo specifically. Not-Frodo then waits ’til the next damn day to ask Not-Gandalf what’s going on.
Not-Boromir (who is a prince) is inexplicably best friends with Not-Frodo (who is the son of an innkeeper, in the next kingdom over). I’m presuming that this is because Not-Boromir totally has the hots for him. This actually makes some of the character dynamics in the book halfway interesting. It’s the internet’s fault I think this way. In any case, when Not-Frodo and Not-Sam show up asking Not-Boromir for help, they set off…without any horses. In fact, I went up to page 600 or so before Brooks mentioned someone actually riding a horse in his generic fantasyland, so I had kind of presumed they might not have existed in the land of Sha Na Na.
There’s a point where Not-Boromir is in a city on an island (so, Not-Laketown, I guess) that’s being besieged by the bad guys. The city council is shocked and amazed when Not-Boromir has the brilliant idea of using boats to escape.
Later, when Not-Aragorn is defending Not-Minas Tirith (or maybe Not-Helm’s Deep) from the oncoming hordes, he keeps on sending his men outside of the walls to engage the bad guys directly…which really strikes me as a pretty crappy tactic, when you have, y’know, walls to defend from.
There’s more little moments of stupidity and/or plot contrivance scattered throughout the book, but I don’t feel like leafing through again in order to pick them out. It’s not nearly as bad as some of the stuff I’ve read before, but it was still fairly glaring.
Ultimately, The Sword of Shannara is a forgettable fantasy novel. I guess Brooks deserves some credit for writing such a mass-market book, but at the same time, I wonder if someone else might’ve kicked off the trend. D&D, in particular, had been out for a few years by 1977, so there was already a bubbling interest in fantasy to be capitalized on.
The thing is, there are a few little tidbits here and there that show Brooks had some original ideas of his own; the biggest of which is the fact that The Sword of Shannara is technically a post-apocalyptic novel, as the setting is ‘our’ world a few thousand years after some kind of apocalypse (that managed to create trolls and elves and stuff, for some reason). The Not-Fellowship even fights a giant cyborg spider in the ruins of an ancient city, which isn’t nearly as cool as it sounds. If Brooks had played up the post apocalyptic fantasy angle a lot more, I think he would’ve had a far more interesting book on his hands- but then, I’m not sure if he would’ve sold as many copies as he did, either. And then where would the fantasy genre be?