Fiction Review: The Sword of Shannara
Capsule Review: Way too derivative of Lord of the Rings though with some interesting twists and it gets very interesting when Han Solo and Chewbacca show up.
In my gaming groups in middle and high school Terry Brooks' Shannara were extremely popular. Looking back, it's a bit easier to see why. While taking much from Tolkien (especially in the first book, which I'll be discussing here) they were definitely much easier reads than Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels, eschewing Elf songs that go on for pages.
The Sword of Shannara is the tale of Shea Ohmsford, a half-elf adopted into the Ohmsford family and his adopted brother Flick. They are warned by the druid Allanon that Shea is a descendant of Jerle Shannara - the last living one - and is therefore the only person who can wield the legendary Sword of Shannara and defeat the Warlock Lord. However, the Warlock Lord and his dark servants, the Skull Bearers, having slain all the other descendants, are searching for Shea.
Shea and Flick leave their home in the Shady Vale and go on a series of small adventures, accompanied by their friend, Menion, the Prince of Leah. They eventually find brief sanctuary at a small Dwarven settlement, are joined by more companions, and go on their main quest to find the Sword. The company goes on many adventures and gets separated, with Shea remaining on the quest while most of the others being forced to withdraw to prepare for the invasion of the forces of the Warlock Lord.
There's a lot more to it than just that of course, but that's the story in extremely broad strokes, while staying clear of outright spoilers. Just from that summary it sounds awfully similar to Tolkien and it most definitely is - indeed there are moments where it seems like there are checkboxes being filled in - a creature lusting after the Ring/Sword, a leader betrayed by an adviser, the wizard/druid does battle with the Balrog/Skull Bearer over a great pit and falls, etc.
"That sounds terrible", you might be thinking. And if that was all there was to The Sword of Shannara, I think you'd be right. I don't think I'd call The Sword of Shannara a great novel but it had a ton of potential that Brooks began realizing in later novels. Moreover, it had the fortune to be the first major release of a fantasy novel, in a market looking for another Tolkien.
The latter consideration gives Brooks no credit so let us look at the former one. While derivative (and many of the contemporary reviews definitely made a major issue of this), Brooks showed great potential when he diverged from the story of Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings this story takes place on our Earth, but of a different age. It is Earth of the future. A nuclear war nearly wiped out humanity. In the aftermath of the nuclear war new races emerged, branching off of the core of humanity - trolls, dwarves, gnomes, and (possibly) elves. Elves seem to have been around prior to the Great War but emerged from hiding after it. These races have their own takes on traditional fantasy races. For example, dwarves hid underground after the war but grew to hate their underground homes, emerging once it was safe to do so. Gnomes are savage, almost like goblins in most settings, except for one group of them which is made up of healers. Trolls tend to be baddies except when they're not. As the races emerged, great wars between them broke out, the Great Wars of the Races. They were put in motion by a renegade druid - the Warlock Lord. Humanity was the instigator of the first of these and sat out the second, licking its wounds and trying to rebuild.
While magic has returned to the world, it is rare, wielded mainly by the druids like Allanon and the Warlock Lord. There are also the Elfstones of Shannara which are given to Shea and become a major part of the second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara. There are also remnants of the technology from the past age.
The book is at its most interesting when Brooks puts his own take on things - the background of the setting for example. Also, Shea meets with a pair of characters who have no real analogues in Lord of the Rings - the charming thief Panamon Creel and his mute troll companion Keltset. Like I said in my opening lines, the pair reminded me of Han Solo and Chewbacca. Unlike my Tolkien comments, they're not really taken from Star Wars - the novel was published the same year Star Wars came out so clearly Brooks had no knowledge of them. They also resemble Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and Brooks himself claimed inspiration from Rupert of Hentzau from The Prisoner of Zenda. The scenes with Shea, Panamon, and Keltset were my favorite scenes in the novel.
Many people suggest actually starting the novels with Elfstones of Shannara which is indeed what MTV seems to have done in their current adaptation. I myself read Elfstones first though I did read Sword after it. When I rated this on GoodReads.com I gave it three out of five stars - not the best book I ever read but one I definitely got some enjoyment from, had some interesting concepts, and set the stage for much better books as Brooks developed as a writer and better found his own voice.