The Sword of Shannara
I first enjoyed this decades ago, and came back to it as I work through my old books. In some cases this is a great pleasure– either being reminded of some of the reasons I enjoyed it originally, or enjoying ‘new’ ones as an older, different reader. Some books, however, it turns out are best left to nostalgia.
To be fair, I loved it at the time. Like so many Tolkien devotees desperate for more fantasy, I remember my sisters and I devouring this back in the 70s (a nephew of mine even bears the middle name ‘Shea’). We could not put it down. But twenty years on … the complete opposite: after a few chapters it was a chore to pick up, and I couldn’t force myself more than half way. The style is just plain clumsy: very early on, for example, I was stunned by the way that Alenon dumps a few pages of exposition on us, with not even an attempt to explain why this aloof mystic is suddenly taking on the role of human prologue.
But what was overwhelming, and doubtless has been pointed out a hundred times before, is that this is so obviously a cover version of Lord of the Rings. No, it’s not ‘in the style of’, it’s unashamedly sticking to a template. It’s like Brooks was, understandably, learning his art by using the model of a master, but the copy is so close as to be a (long) writing exercise. Alenon is Gandalf. Shea and Flick are Bilbo and Frodo. Whatever it is I’ve forgotten now are the Ringwraiths. The dwarf is Gimli. Moreover the structure, the pacing of the book is a slavish copy. Here we are fleeing the shire. Now we’re gathering the fellowship. I didn’t get that far this time, but I’m sure I recall a desperate trip through underground caves that might just call to mind Moriah.
SoS makes me think of a garage band playing a song you love very badly.
It is hard to do anything original or fresh in this overcrowded cannibalistic genre, but SoS is not even an attempt. Maybe Brooks would have been better off openly writing fan fiction– like Poul and Karen Anderson’s excellent ‘Faith’ (from ‘After the King: Stories in Honour of J.R.R. Tolkien’) At heart so much fantasy is a mirage, drawing us in with the promised pleasure of the elves, wizards and heroes we so loved in LOTR, but ultimately leaving us unsatisfied. These mythical figures weren’t great in Tolkien merely because he named them, it’s because he invested them with dignity, potency and history. In recalling these images, even as a faćade, derivatives do give the pleasure of reflection, but little more.
That being said, the genre can still occasionally offer something more satisfying. I don’t quite know how Gemmell gets away with it, but he manages somehow to produce moments of purity from stock standard fantasy settings. In ‘The Knight’ Wolfe soars apart from the squawking pack, ignoring mandatory plot conventions in celebrating the surreal and moral context of many an Arthurian tale: he, thankfully, is well aware (as Tolkien was) that Tolkien hardly invented elves, wizards or heroes!