“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville
Melville was not speaking about Terry Brooks’ Shannara series, but his words sum up my feelings about the trilogy very well.
Writers have to begin somewhere and learn somehow. If they can get paid for that learning experience, good on them. Brooks was apparently attending law school while he wrote the first book, The Sword of Shannara. The double focus (law school and writing a novel) may the reason that so much of Sword seems to be lifted directly out of The Lord of the Rings, maybe tweaked just a smidge, and inserted directly into Sword. If you are feeling kindly, Sword is an homage to LOTR. If you are me, these incidents end up feeling like a piece of furniture against which I was continually stubbing my toe. It was distracting—instead of enjoying the story, I’d be identifying and analyzing. “Oh, that’s X from LOTR and this is Z.”
Stephen King has written, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” See also Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing—he completely agrees. I have to concur with both of them, as I found the number of adverbs in Sword to be maddening. I was reading a library copy, so I couldn’t indulge in my desire to highlight every example with a yellow marker, but if I had a loonie for every adverb in the text, I would be able to afford quite a few books! [A loonie, for you non-Canadians, is a Canadian one dollar coin]. There was also a preponderance of adjectives, often repetitive, that annoyed me. I mean, how many times do we need to the told that Menion Leah is “lean”? The writing was clunky and cluttered. However, I struggled to the end and I loved the ending of the book—it was delightful and made me hopeful for the next book in the series.
Thankfully, the second and third books, The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara, are much more original. Brooks has found how to write in his own voice, rather than trying to be Tolkien. He also seems to have received better editing, as the number of adverbs and adjectives is pared down to a reasonable amount. As a result, books two and three are much more enjoyable, although still not up to the standard of writing of King or Leonard. The Elfstones of Shannara covers some Elvish history, including the banishment of all Demons through the spell that created the magical Ellcrys tree. Although it follows the Tolkien pattern (i.e., a protagonist who feels inadequate to accomplish the task, who gets separated from his friends and left to his own devices to find the required place/thing and succeeds beyond his expectations), Brooks gives it his own spin. For one thing, the main character in Elfstones, Wil Ohmsford, actually gets a romantic interest or two. (In Sword, Shea Ohmsford doesn’t rate a romance, only his friend Menion Leah gets a girl—although in order for Shea to have a grandson to star in the next story, there must have been romance eventually).
Wishsong follows the Ohmsford family again, another generation or two along. I particularly enjoyed that it was a talent of Brin and Jair (the Wishsong) that was powerful, rather than an accessory (the sword or the elfstones). The introduction of a sympathetic Gnome character, Slanter, was a great addition, as was the disappearing moor cat Whisper. The group of people that end up travelling with Jair are, once again, very reminiscent of The Company of the Ring, but there was enough originality in the book that it didn’t rub me the wrong way this time. It ends, as all three books do, with the heroes/heroines realizing that the answers are within themselves.
Maybe if I had never encountered Tolkien I would have been more enamoured of this trilogy. Instead, it suffered by comparison. I found that Brooks plunged the reader directly into the tale with very little background information—this was no carefully thought out world with back story that is so obvious in Tolkien. Instead the background details are provided in awkward little information dumps here and there within the text, sometimes at the strangest moments. I also wasn’t keen on his character names—Flick sounded to me like a good dog’s name, but not so good for a man. Some of his elves have names that sound more like dwarves to me (Durin and Dayel in Sword, for example). And I could never read about the Druid Allanon without thinking of the support group for families of alcoholics, Al-Anon. However, on the plus side, the name Slanter for a Gnome seemed to fit extremely well.
So, book 1 drove me crazy, but books 2 and 3 redeemed the series somewhat for me. Although they are good enough books, I am now done with the world of Shannara—the basic plot line that repeats through all three books is a grand old theme, but there are limits to how many times you can lead this old mare to that same well and expect her to drink. With so many more enticing books calling to me, I just don’t care enough about the world of Shannara to pursue it any further.