Oh boy. You ready for this?
The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, is the first novel of one of the more famous fantasy series out there, with umpteen sequels at last lack of count. KJ bought several of the books on the cheap and, as they were in the house, I decided to dig in.
I started this book in about February or March and just finished last week.
I could not sit through this and retain my sanity. Never have I resisted the urge so often to visit physical violence upon a book. One day I set it aside, and there it rested for months, ignored and maybe one-third read, while I enjoyed less exasperating books until I could face it again.
The short of it is:
This is a poor man’s Lord of the Rings. Not the “store brand” kind of cheap. The “McDonald’s hamburger” kind of cheap, with fat and grease soaked in to try to convince you that this extruded food byproduct is just as delicious as the good stuff you grill at home.
All the characters are flat, dialogue is painfully absent, you can often tell what’s going to happen because it’s just LotR with slight twists, and oh the prose. The prose is the worst part. Fifteen years ago, say, I might have tolerated it, but my palate is too sensitive now to not see the writing style for what it is: uneven precisely because it is so even.
I’m honestly not angry, I’m just very frustrated and disappointed. 700+ pages can do that to you.
The long, long, long of it may best be expressed in a Top Ten list complete with spoilers:
10. The dedication.
The dedication starts us off on the wrong foot. By dedicating the book “For My Parents, Who Believed”, Brooks suggests himself as a starry-eyed newbie writer, supported only by family as he seeks to persevere in his desire to pen an epic fantasy novel. Regardless of whether that was true, this is an obvious attempt to make me feel guilty about ripping the book to shreds and I hate that it works even slightly.
9. The endless stealing from Lord of the Rings.
726 pages (including a few illustrations) is plenty long for a novel, but not when you’re attempting to replicate Lord of the Rings. So this attempt is going to fail before it begins.
Brooks tries to jam in pretty much everything from LotR between the party at the start and the scouring at the end, and there is not enough room to deal with all of that properly. There’s a Watcher in the Water, a Faramir and a Boromir (not brothers), a Gollum, even the Big Bad lives in a solitary tower/mountain surrounded by a circle of scary mountains THAT HAVE MURDEROUS SPIDERS LIVING IN THEM. Now, there’s enough variation that it’s not an exact match — Allanon isn’t a wizard he’s a DRUID wow you guys that sounds fancy — but every single time the “borrowed” element is inferior, usually badly so. Allanon, for example, is supposed to be intimidating and mysterious and wise and a little short-tempered, but he’s mainly just cranky and arbitrary.
There are too many cranky people in this book, honestly. Nearly all the emotion on display is fear or bad temper.
I’ve already read LotR, so I have a broad idea of how most of these stolen bits are going to go. Except when they don’t go anywhere because there’s no room to flesh out an event or a character because we gotta hurry on to the next plot point. The Helm’s Deep / Pelennor battle is a pretty decent read – aside from whenever the baddies have a combined intellect of zero because that’s the only way the heroes survive – but it feels pointless when I know the city will fall but the Elves will ride in at the last minute and save the day. (And then the Elves are undercut because the battle stops when the Big Bad asplodes, and they never even get into the fight proper. WHAT IN THE NAME OF SAM CLEMENS ARE YOU DOING.)
Maybe the one big thing that’s slightly original is when Flick steals into the enemy’s camp to look for Shea and the Sword or information on same, but finds and frees Eventine. That’s a pretty okay sequence. The few times this book made me sit up and say “Okay this is good”, in every case there was mystery or a twist that I didn’t see coming. Just a few times.
The first time was fully halfway through the book, when Shea runs into Panamon Creel and Keltset. Panamon looked like he would be either Strider or Faramir but then had a mind of his own and, while first standing in for the Rohirrim as he freed Shea from the band of gnomes, turned out to be a mercenary who initially kept Shea’s Elfstones for himself. Panamon and Shea was maybe the only interesting interaction in the whole book, and its introduction revived my interest to the point that I kept reading in regular bursts until the end. My point here is, Brooks does so much better when he’s less reliant on Tolkien to tell him what to kinda-sorta do.
Ugh, those Elfstones. That was gonna be a whole bullet point of its own but I already filled out the top ten.
8. The author can’t keep track of what he’s doing.
Little passages here and there where the author contradicts or subverts something he just said, or just writes bad prose. Basic hack writing. I even saved some examples for you, you lucky dogs.
Page 584, misplaced antecedent: “He” looks like it refers to Menion, but from the next dialogue it must refer to Balinor (but not Hendel, who was also mentioned in that paragraph).
Flick never gets so much as a pat on the back for rescuing King Eventine.
Pages 622-623, the paragraph seems to shift from Shea’s perspective to an omniscient third-person and back to Shea again without any markers. It’s confusing.
Page 630 etc., DECIMATION DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT. It means there are people left, not that they were all wiped out. I know people throw that word around loosely, but usually in a sense that a few were left, not (as originally meant) that 10% were destroyed. 90% left, or 10% left, not 0. Brooks means it in the zero sense at least twice.
Page 688, how can paint flake off of the surface of an object held so tightly in your hands that you can’t let go of it?
And of course, at the big climax, it turns out the secret way to use the Sword against the Big Bad, the method we were repeatedly told Allanon was so afraid that Shea wouldn’t figure out, was . . . hit him with it.
7. Tell tell tell and then don’t show and then tell some more.
There’s a lot of useless repetition like that, where Brooks reminds us again and again of some dramatic point of concern or a mystery. It always fails because I’m too busy feeling beaten over the head. It fails because it’s not organic. A timer goes off and Brooks decides it’s time to remind me that Allanon is definitely hiding something wow what could it be for three paragraphs again. Have we had any further hints about what’s hidden? what relevance it has to anything? why we should care? No.
Similarly, Flick’s main trait is that he disapproves of Menion Leah’s judgment, so expect to keep hearing about that in the first half even though it barely affects his actions.
More repetition comes from Brooks not trusting himself or the readers. Basic ideas, basic on the level of “poking the bear is a bad idea”, are hashed out for entire paragraphs. Does he think little children are reading this? Then the book should be closer to 7 pages than 700. It’s frustrating thinking about all the lovely characterization that could fill this space instead.
And every time Brooks trips over himself to justify the latest plot convenience that saves the heroes’ hides . . . sigh.
6. Brooks seems to think he’s Homer.
Flick and Shea are Valemen! Menion Leah is the prince of Leah! Shirl has a slim arm! Keltset has gentle, intelligent eyes! (This actually feels kind of racist because he’s a rock troll and I guess he’s expected to look rough and dumb?) You will be reminded of these facts repeatedly, not because Brooks shows how they affect anyone’s behavior – that would be good writing – but by just using their descriptions or titles as pronouns, whether or not they’re relevant to the moment.
Shirl, incidentally, is supposed to be Eowyn, but her sole attributes are that she is a fragile, hot redhead who needs someone strong to protect her, and she doesn’t want to marry the crazy prince standing in for Denethor. Fortunately, Menion Leah arrives to save her from a kidnapping and win her heart. I don’t think she says an actual word outside of exposition and declaring her love. You see what I mean about all the changes being inferior?
5. Where’s the editor??
So much of this could have been avoided with a remotely competent editor. I refuse to believe there were no English language editors anywhere in existence in 1977. Maybe they were all over on the set of that laser sword film, desperately trying through sheer weight of numbers to convince George Lucas to take out that scene where Luke tells Leia how much he hates sand.
As an editor, I like to err in favor of letting the writer’s voice through, but I would have used up several red pens on this manuscript.
4. The Elfstones.
Haha, I found a spot for the D.E.M. after all. Suck it, Brooks.
Before not-Gandalf (Allanon the DRUID wow guys) leaves Shea and Flick behind in not-the Shire, because that’s how it happened in LotR, he gives Shea the Elfstones, magical stones that glow green when their power is used. He tells Shea they can help Shea out of any really desperate fix he finds himself in.
BROOKS IS SCREAMING AT THE READER THAT NOTHING THAT FOLLOWS WILL PUT SHEA IN ANY DANGER BECAUSE SHEA HAS A BLANK CHECK DEUS EX MACHINA THAT WILL END ANY ACTUAL PERILS THE MOMENT ALL SEEMS LOST.
Shea uses them, what, three or four times on his journey. The first occasion is fine, genuinely dramatic even. But all the other times, Brooks has to make a big deal out of whether Shea will pull them out in time to save the day in order to have any tension. Fortunately for the sake of drama, they become useless once Shea reaches the final leg of his journey to the Skull Kingdom, where their power would reveal him to the Big Bad. You know, just like the One Ring couldn’t be used inside Mordor proper.
3. Flat characters, no character growth.
Every main character gets maybe three attributes if they’re lucky. Most of the time they get one meaningful trait that is ever relevant, and boy will Brooks hammer that in. Remember how Allanon is big and scary and mysterious? Or how Flick doesn’t trust Menion Leah’s judgment? Perfect examples. Aside from distrusting Menion, Flick’s just some guy who likes his brother, you know?
Pretty much the only characters that feel remotely rounded are Hendel, the taciturn, tough wanderer, and Panamon Creel, who has *two* traits and an imperfect understanding of his buddy Keltset.
Relatedly, why even bother having all these different races? The men and elves are interchangable and we barely see any dwarves. No societal customs, no differences in biology other than pointy ears, no memorable differences in speech.
2. No dialogue.
Many of the previous problems are tied up with the failure to write dialogue where it would count. Once the party gets split up this feels less of an issue, but time and again we get zero reaction from the characters about anything.
The classic example is when the equivalent of the Watcher in the Water attacks during the journey past the equivalent of LotR’s midge marsh. The characters are already super lost in a fog between a forest and a lake, and they get ambushed by this horrific creature beyond anything they’ve imagined. They fight desperately until Shea thinks to use the Elfstones and they barely get away with their lives.
Now, how do they react to all this stress? What will we learn about their characters? Is there one single word out of anyone’s mouth, one poignant expression on anyone’s face? No, they catch their breath and confer for a moment, without dialogue, and then continue walking toward the next plot event. It’s an unforgivable missed opportunity to make these names feel like actual people. But no, we have to keep going if we’re going to squish this much plot into one book.
It keeps happening. Long, interesting discussions are summarized when they should be dialogue. Reactions to important situations are briefly narrated without giving any insight into individual thought processes. Pages go by with nary a quotation mark to break the monotony. As a result, one hardly ever feels caught up in the moment. There is no moment; perhaps there never was one, just a winding arrow on the map in the writer’s mind.
1. The lavender prose is suffocating.
It’s everywhere. Everywhere. Adverbs and adjectives and verbose descriptions everywhere. There are some good and welcome descriptions, but Brooks cannot turn the hose off. There’s no pacing, no up and down of emotion, no emphasis except by repetition. As I said above, that leads to prose that is so even that it’s uneven. You read a nice bit of scenery, and then the tone should change but the sentence structure remains constant and the adjectives keep coming. All the description also means there’s no room for dialogue or letting the moment breathe.
This is the greatest failing of Sword of Shannara, the one that gets most in the way of fixing all the others. It could be a passable LotR clone with more characterization, more dialogue, and an editor who wields a good solid chisel and hammer.
But there is just no room to expand, because Brooks has one writing style, and that is to pile on adjectives and thesaurus’ed verbs and nouns.
Except for . . .
0. “A man of medium height and regular appearance.”
I know we filled our Letterman quota, but I gotta single this actual phrase out. We get introduced to three corps commander types in charge of the final defense of Ondorgay on the plains of Elennorpay. They lead the glorious Southern Whatever Legion. What are these important people like? Well, two have hair (amazing) and Brooks doesn’t describe the third beyond “generic dude”. If you can’t even bother to give him a scar then why should I care about him? None of the three do anything except bite it during the battle so what was even the point. WHERE IS THE EDITOR. WHERE ARE THE FLAGS ON THIS PLAY.
-1. No aftermath.
The hero’s journey is complete and the deed is done, Shea escapes from the Big Bad’s death throes, he’s found by a rescue party and that wraps it up, right?
You do not get plucked out of your insular backwoods hamlet to fight in a war for the fate of the free peoples and then come back unchanged. Now, I don’t demand an entire Scouring but there ought to be something to show the lasting effects on Shea and Flick.
The aftermath in Sword gets five pages. Really, four and a half. That’s it. And like half of that is dedicated to Flick and Shea freaking out like panicked rabbits when their father announces a stranger is looking for them. No courage, no self-confidence, not even emotional scar tissue, I think we may have just witnessed negative character growth. But then they were barely characters to begin with.
-2. The world is not remotely epic.
I don’t ask much of a fantasy map, but this one looks like Brooks only had a paper napkin to draft it on. But my true gripe is with the story, in which it feels like it only ever takes two or three days, tops, to walk from Point A to Point B.
Technically we don’t see coastlines, so maybe each race’s territories extend indefinitely off the map shown, but it feels like this “epic” struggle against the Big Bad only takes place in a land the size of a Midwestern state or two. Sauron needing centuries to regain strength and build up an army big enough to conquer Europe is one thing, this bozo spending the same time glaring at St. Louis and Kansas City from his skull tower in Des Moines is another.
-3. “The cracked, dry earth was particularly difficult to maneuver because it lacked the forms of vegetation that normally offered decent footing.”
There is a very simple rule of serious writing. It goes like this: If you ever write a sentence that looks like it belongs in “The Eye of Argon”, you lose immediately.
-4. Dayel never does anything.
Dayel is the Pippin of the group, complete with someone not wanting him to come along for his own safety. Pippin, you remember, matured along the way by force of circumstance and proved his worth as a soldier for Gondor. Dayel never does anything useful. Once he helps his brother to almost catch the escaping Evil Vizier. That’s as close as he gets to being relevant. It is mentioned he has a sweetheart waiting for him, but then he doesn’t even almost get killed in the last big battle for the angst of it. His brother – who is the Merry, and barely does anything himself – is the one that gets knocked down and knocked out with his fate left hanging until a later chapter. You know, just like Pippin when the eagles show up to the final battle in RotK.
I am so done with this series.