Monday, July 22, 2013

Rereads: The Sword of Shannara

When I was a youth, 99% of what I read was fantasy and science fiction. We didn't have the most money, so any such book that came into the house, I'd read over and over for years. In this occasional series, I take up some of those old and treasured titles and give them a read after fifteen or twenty years to see how I feel about them now.
Oh, this book. Just look at it. That Brothers Hildebrandt cover. The goofy font. That word: Shannara. The scroll on which the title block is "printed". All of this is too painfully familiar to me. The book came out in 1977, but that's not when I read it; probably it was about 1980 or so when I got the book. I can't remember if my mom or my dad bought it for me, but I have clear memories of reading it at my dad's house, and of the book later living there in a drawer in a desk that wasn't mine. Maybe it was my dad's writing desk? Probably that was the case. He didn't use all the spaces in that desk, so I probably put this book--which I can remember liking very much--into a drawer to keep it safe.

Terry Brooks is a great Pacific Northwest success story. He was the first fantasy author after Tolkien to really get big, go mainstream. He was a New York Times bestseller, and with this book, this very book taht I tucked into my dad's desk. It had all the great elements: a humble hero, his doofus of a sidekick, his other irresponsbile sidekick who grew into a great and admirable warrior, the mysterious wizard, the exiled prince, the dwarf, the elf, the One Ring...wait a minute. I was talking about the Lord of the Rings there for a minute. Let me fix that. Strike out the One Ring and change it for the Sword of Shannara, and all the rest can stay. Because, and of course when I was a youth I barely registered this, if at all, this book is the second most obvious knock off of Tolkien ever to be written (here's the current title holder).

Brooks went on to write about a hundred thousand more Shannara books (well, twenty or thirty) and just published what's supposedly going to be the last of them. They veered into their own world, their own creation, very rapidly; the second book in the series, called The Elfstones of Shannara, was my favorite of them, and already moves far away from Tolkien, or as far as one could after loosely establishing a world that was so very much in the master's shadow.

I got this book from the library a couple weeks ago, and was daunted to see it was huge. That's not an uncommon occurrence in fantasy, of course, and I'd read the book before two or three times, but it came as something of a shock after how much slimmer all my other rereads have been. Brevity used to be valued to a degree in fantasy, which is almost entirely gone; in my years as a bookstore clerk I saw people pass on buying fantasy novels--from authors they liked, no less--simply because at 300 or so pages, it wasn't enough content to justify buying. Well. I'd rather a good short novel than a bloated piece of poorly written tripe any old day.

Did I say bloated, and did I say tripe? Well, I meant them. The Sword of Shannara was Brooks's first book, and his editor, I'm given to understand, helped to shape it to be as much like the Lord of the Rings as they could manage, to the detriment of the material. Further, there's never a long and pointless description that isn't used; Tolkien did the same, but with the intent of showing his world's carefully built history and languages and culture. With Brooks, in this book, it was mainly to describe how grey a stretch of countryside was, things like that. Further, he has a lamentable tendency to recount what you've just read thirty pages before, as if the reader might have forgotten; and to also attempt to make grand things which patently aren't. He speaks of his heroes as old friends, when most of them met three or four weeks earlier, and when none of them have enough personality to actually become friends. We're told, all the time, how cheerful or reckless or irascible or noble people are, but there's precious little evidence for any of it. The story is ridiculous, one of those things that requires too many coincidences and too much knowledge kept back solely for the making the plot more complicated. The scale is embarrassingly small: the whole novel takes place in an area maybe three hundred miles across, four hundred at most, which is meant to be viewed as huge. Travelling across is for literally days, we're meant to treat this as an epic quest, but it just feels like a bit of a walkabout. And how they travel: forty and fifty miles a day when there's no roads--or alternately well maintained trails in forbidden territory--night travels in pitch blackness with no moon, always on foot because...well, I'm not sure why, because they have horses in the world, and no one seems unable to ride them when called upon to do so.

I'm far from the first person to say this book stinks. It was never my favorite; the next two I read over and over, despite some silliness especially in naming conventions, and the first one just two or three times. It doesn't hold up well at all, and I think everyone is aware of that. But Brooks got much better, his books much richer, his world almost entirely his own. He's had an amazing career, all based on this one novel that is slightly questionable but was fun, and was embraced by the world. 

I skipped over paragraphs and sometimes pages as I read, and still found it too long. But I'm glad I went back to it all the same. Of the re-reads I've done so far, this is the only one that's still fully relevant to fantasy today (because the last book in the series came out less than a week ago, so seriously, this thirty five year old book still matters.) But it's a piece of work. Boy, howdy. Give it a pass and move on straight to the second one, is all I can suggest. You'll be happier for it.


  1. I read the first... four? in high school. The thin re-skinning of Tolkien was so apparent that even my uncritical younger self noticed it (and resented it). That's probably because I was rather a bit of a Tolkien fanboy even back then and I was angered that someone was making money by basically plagiarizing him. Incidentally, that same impulse arose when reading R. Scott Baker's most recent book where a whole sequence is basically the Moria plot from Fellowship. *shakes fist*

  2. Did you ever have the misfortune to read Dennis McKiernan? The Mithgar books? I was exceedingly uncritical, but they were too much for me: every scene and act and character is taken from Tolkien, usually almost directly. Like going through the abandoned dwarf city of Kraggen Kor, where the dwarfs were driven out by a monster called the Ghath, after a fight by a pool while they get the doors to the place open...sigh.