Thursday, February 9, 2012

Book Review: The Sword of Shannara (Book 1 of The Sword of Shannara)

The Sword of Shannara (1977), Terry Brooks. Paperback, 736 pages. 

Summary: A young man bears the responsibility of finding and wielding an ancient artifact against a mysterious, dark spirit. For a more detailed summary, click here.

     "I can't believe we're completely lost! Isn't there any way we can get our bearings?"
     "I'm open to suggestions." His friend smiled humorlessly, stretching as he, too, dropped his pack to the rough ground and sat down beside the brooding Flick. "What's the trouble, old Flick? Have I gotten you into it again?" 
     Flick glanced over at him angrily; but looking into the gray eyes, he quickly reconsidered his dislike of the man. There was genuine concern there, and even a trace of sadness at the thought that he had failed them. With rare affection, Flick reached over and placed a comforting hand on the other's shoulder, nodding silently. Suddenly, Shea leaped up and flung off his own pack, hastily rummaging through its contents. 
     "The stones can help us," he cried.


Writing Quality: 3/10

Depth of Concept: 2/10

Rounded Characters: 4/10

Well-Developed World: 4/10

Page Turner: 6/10

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10

Overall Recommendation: 3/10


Writing Quality: 3/10. The Sword of Shannara didn't make it onto the bestsellers' list by a display of brilliant prose. It made it onto the list because it was one of the first efforts at an epic magical world for Tolkien lovers to inhabit, even though it wasn't a particularly intelligent or interesting effort. Brooks' prose is full of phrases that any creative writing teacher would mark out and have a student re-do. Here are a few examples: "Its feet emitted a curious scraping sound as it moved across the dark earth." How does a foot "emit" something? Here, the word choice simply shows a weak vocabulary, an awkwardness that typically comes when students want to use a simple word and then look for a more "literary" word, but end up using the word inappropriately. Why not say that his feet "made" a scraping sound? Or, consider this clumsy justification for why Brooks is about to unload an excessive amount of character introspection on us: "Shea considered the alternatives carefully though he had already made up his mind." And be prepared for every character, at one point or another, and perhaps at many points, to best a foe by "mustering every ounce of strength at his command." I could go on, but you get the idea. But, at least it's not as bad as his same-name compatriot, Terry Goodkind.

Depth of Concept: 2/10. I can't say that the book is without any meaning . . . after all, the battle between good and evil is an important one. The problem is that any depth of meaning is merely borrowed from the groundwork laid by Tolkien and other earlier writers. Brooks is basically just borrowing a theme and sensibility and using less-interesting characters in less-interesting situations to do nothing new. The one idea that I thought might have been interesting would have been to spend more time explaining how the relics of our modern world fit into this new fantasy world . . . but that opportunity is almost entirely botched. We learn that there are 20th-century structures around from an "age-old" time, but Brooks never bothers to explain anything about them or offer any interesting or original ideas about how a modern civilization falls apart or how it rebuilds itself. It lacks what made A Game of Thrones and The Fellowship of the Ring intelligent reads.

Rounded Characters: 4/10. The characters are not very interesting, but they're not horribly flat. The same problem that Tolkien had with characters like Aragorn are also a problem in Brooks' novel . . . when a character is good, he's really good, and when a character is bad, he's really bad. There are one or two characters who like to have a little fun and get into a little trouble, but nothing much is made of those qualities in terms of moral ambiguity. But beyond that, so many of the characters are ripped blatantly out of The Lord of the Rings, with barely more than a name-change. 

Well-Developed World: 4/10. I would score this lower, but I decided that since this is the beginning of a huge series, I'd give a nod to the larger world that ultimately comes out of it. Nevertheless, descriptions can be a bit muddled, and there's little to distinguish regular people in one part of the map from people in another part of the map. Some happen to be dwarves, some elves, some men, but they all pretty much act the same. And you never get the sense that Brooks really knows how large his world is. Sometimes he says a certain distance should take little more than a day or two to travel, and sometimes weeks. Certainly, the included map is NOT to scale, in any event.

Page Turner: 6/10. Even though the book scores generally low marks for a lot of reasons, it's not a terrible read. This is mainly, I think, because Brooks includes a lot of action, and does a pretty good job of setting up some exciting scenes, even if they aren't wonderfully written.

Kept Me Thinking: 3/10. I thought of scoring this lower, but decided that I did end up thinking about the world . . . even if it wasn't through any skill of Brooks'. Really, I ended up thinking a lot about the things that Brooks left out and should have included, to make his story better.

Overall Recommendation: 3/10. I read this as a kid, and it's a fairly innocuous, if mindless, way to pass the time. If you love goblins and dwarves and elves, it hits those notes . . . but it doesn't make them interesting, it only makes them exciting in a few scenes. The Sword of Shannara is like a poorly made, big-budget Hollywood movie -- a lot of work went into it, but it's mostly cashing in on what others have done better. Having said that, I ate this stuff up as a kid, and there's not much in it that would be inappropriate for a 10-year-old.

Books To Compare: You'd obviously need to take a look at the source material, starting with The Fellowship of the Ring. Beyond that, there's not really any quality work of literature that merits a comparison. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Sword of Shannara on Amazon.

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