Trouble with The Sword of Shannara

I’ve noticed that most people who write about The Sword of Shannara are either defending his choice of characters (and he does borrow rather heavily from Tolkien) or they are lamenting the lack of creativity. This was not my problem in reading the book. I came to it, fully prepared to find some reincarnations of Tolkien; I even was ready for wholesale use of his furniture without a great deal of rearranging.

Despite this, I still could not enjoy the book, and I tried. I have a number of friends who loved the book, and I gave it the best shot I could (even managing to finish it when it had long lost my interest), and at the end, I realized what the problem was. Unlike Tolkien, Terry Brooks never got me interested in the characters. Here they were, heading to the most dangerous, forbidden part of their world, and I didn’t care.

I think this was partly because I never got to see the world that was going to be destroyed by darkness. We meet Flick and Shea just as their world is being changed, as the herald of doom shows up, and we aren’t given any chance to see them with their father, just interacting and having a good time and enjoying life. There is no birthday party for Bilbo Baggins, no quiet before the storm. We are told the storm is coming, and then it comes, and we haven’t spent enough time with them to realize what it means for them to leave their home so suddenly. They just leave and we leave with them.

The same thing happens in Menion Leah’s home. We come, we recruit his help, and we leave without seeing how the highlanders live and what would be lost if evil wins and conquers this land. This process is repeated when we reach the dwarves, and by the time we meet the men of the west, war is about to start and there isn’t time to see things in their peaceful condition.

The other problem was that Brooks kept dangling secrets in front of me without telling me anything. I could understand his wanting to create a mystery and perhaps use that to generate suspense, but I got tired of hearing that “no one really knew that much about Allanon” and that “Allanon had a secret he could not share with anyone.” When I finally got the end and knew what the secret was and why Allanon was on this quest in the first place, it suddenly made me care. The same thing happened with Balinor. He has some private reason for his leaving his homeland and coming to the dwarves’ home in the east, but we don’t learn what it is until we reach his homeland. Then, everything makes sense, and I want him to succeed…but by then, we are halfway through the book and it seems like it’s much too late (and in Allanon’s case, it happened in the last ten pages of the book…very much too late).

I think if he had gotten rid of this faux-suspense and given us a reason to care about these characters, having them be honest with each other and with us, then it would have greatly improved the book. He could have kept the power behind the sword a secret; that was fine. The trouble for me was not caring about the characters involved—and if none of them have any good reason to risk their lives and leave their families, how can we care?

Shea was doing it because he felt he had to, Flick to support his brother, Menion out of pride, Allanon and Balinor for their secret reasons, and Hendel, Dayel, and Durin to protect their people and their families…all of whom we never meet. If he had cut out the repetitive reminders about Allanon and Balinor’s secrets and replaced them with scenes with Dayel and his fiancé, with Hendel and his family or scenes where the band share all their reasons for going on this quest, then maybe I could’ve cared for them earlier, before half the book had been read and half the dangers passed.

Note: This is not to belittle in any way what Brooks did for the genre. He helped make it a viable genre in the eyes of publishers, for his success meant that they could print other fantasy stories without facing instant financial failure, and, as it was his first novel, he was undeniably still learning and developing his skills as a writer. This was just the reason why, though I tried, I couldn’t enjoy the book.

Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren

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