Wednesday, 29 July 2015

The Blog Fantastic 040: The Sword of Shannara Review (Unread 017)

Reading a book like The Sword of Shannara, which comes with a lot of baggage, is the kind of thing I have to mull over before I actually open the cover. This is the kind of book where people tend to be more familiar with the criticism and commentary surrounding the book than have actually read the book themselves. In the Information Age, many potential readers probably discover that the book can best be summarized as a Lord of the Rings rip-off or Lord of the Rings-lite and decide to simply skip it over. For readers like me who decide to give it an honest try, it’s more or less impossible to read it with an open mind. It makes it difficult for you to enjoy the book on its own merits because you constantly have to juggle your reaction of the story against the criticism already attached to the book. This is certainly true of all books but there are notable novels, such as this one, that have received an overwhelming negative response that overshadows the positive response, often resulting in it being dismissed far too quickly and unfairly.

Here’s the biggest problem with The Sword of Shannara, the most popular criticisms thrown at it are usually 1) it’s a near identical copy of The Lord of the Rings both in terms of plot and characters, and 2) it’s a really shitty version of that great epic.  These comments can be found far and wide, both in and outside the confines of the Internet. Those criticisms are true but they also offer an incomplete assessment of what The Sword of Shannara has to offer.
I certainly won’t apologize for Terry Brooks’s appropriation of many elements of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings but I will defend the use of them. Having read the first book in the Shannara series, it’s quite clear to me that Brooks has plenty more to offer as a writer and, specifically, as a writer in the fantasy genre. His use of Tolkien’s work as overt inspiration is more of a cautionary tale for new writers than it is a condemnation and dismissal of skill on Brooks’s part or a dismissal of any entertainment or literary value that The Sword of Shannara and its sequels have to offer. My main reason for defending this book is that I feel there are plenty of things within its pages that are rarely mentioned in the high number of negative reviews and which deserve, if not praise, than at the very least honest recognition. That in itself is nothing special since plenty of books deserve this much but, in the face of near-constant criticism, The Sword of Shannara needs to be defended.

Let’s put aside the obvious elements first. The basic narrative structure is copied, in some cases point for point, from The Lord of the Rings. Even the characters that form the Fellowship and accompany Frodo on his quest can be found in slightly altered form in Shannara. You can easily find people who demonstrate this with characters list and plot breakdowns. While this can be frustrating and demonstrate poor decision making on behalf of the writer and his editor, it’s not enough to condemn a novel as being unworthy. I also think it’s pretty hypocritical to harshly judge Brooks on his honest and upfront appropriation of elements from one of his greatest influences but not be equally critical of other authors when their influences are equally present but not as well known. Tolkien himself borrowed heavily from other sources but readers generally don’t mind, I suspect because they’re unfamiliar with Tolkien’s influences.

Yes, there are dozens of similarities between both books, and to that I ask: so what? As stated above, Brooks is far from the only offender. Many other authors have liberally taken inspiration and ideas from Tolkien’s body of work. Another notable and popular example is Robert Jordan who, in The Eye of the World, the first volume of his The Wheel of Time series also borrowed from The Lord of the Rings. The opening of that book intentionally mimicked the tone and events of the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. What’s more important is that the longer the story progressed, the more it distanced itself from the influences of Tolkien. The same is true of The Sword of Shannara. While similarities can be found almost to the last page of the book, they’re considerably less frequent in the second half. I suspect that some of Brooks’s critics have never read the entire novel.

Another thing I believe is often overlooked is that the fantasy genre, as well as many other genres in various forms of entertainment, is that ideas are cheap. Ideas are reused by countless people on a regular basis so that ideas, on their own, have very little value. Certain story elements, such as the Hero’s Quest, can be found in all types of stories from books, to television series, to movies, and comics, etc. It’s such a common story element that it has become foundational to how we absorb or react to stories. Classic movies regularly get remade. Songs get covered by other bands or artists. If a song can literally be copied, including the original lyrics and key pieces of melody, why can’t one author take ideas from a book and reinterpret them in a different storytelling context? Ideas are cheap; it’s execution that truly matters. It’s also in execution that Brooks manages to find his own voice and create his own world in which dozens of books were eventually be set.

What interested me the most while reading The Sword of Shannara were the elements that were unique to Brooks’s world. The best one in my opinion is the world in which the story takes place is a future Earth. Brooks also has neat ideas on how time, different geographical and cultural settings, and possibly some form of radiation, resulted in the creation of multiple species. As such, the world of the Four Lands has race relations unique to this setting. It’s also interesting to see Brooks and his characters use modern terminology to discuss the political and racial landscapes of the Four Lands. It makes sense considering the story takes place on a future Earth but it’s interesting to see certain words used in a pseudo-medieval setting. Another nice thing about these ideas is that Brooks is clearly trying to give his world depth. It’s more and more noticeable as the story progresses but it’s also pretty clear early on, from Allanon’s first conversation with Shea and Flick.

There are other things about The Sword of Shannara that are worth mentioning, most of them demonstrate just how Brooks strays from Tolkien’s influence. A good example is that Dwarves are not miners, they’re woodsmen. Elves aren’t as pompous and self-centered as they are in Tolkien’s epic. Brooks also includes his very own race that doesn’t have a direct link to Tolkien’s version aside from the name. Brooks writes about Trolls but he does so in ways that suggest they have their own culture, one that I hope he continued to explore in later books. This is just a starting point for Brooks, not the entire story he had to tell. It’s the first of three parts and while it’s lengthy, I suspect he finished borrowing plot points from Tolkien with the end of this volume.

There is a fair amount of story, characters, and settings to enjoy while reading The Sword of Shannara, but it’s far from a flawless book. When evaluating the book on its own, outside of the copycat claims, there is a list of faults. The first thing I’d like to point out is that the book is too long. It feels padded and I think a lot of that can be attributed to Brooks’s writing. He’s clearly a novice writer ad this stage in his career and I found it difficult to get really excited about the actual writing of the book. His descriptions of the natural landscape of his world are too long and, in some case, downright bland. Descriptions in general were lacking in finesse. The book has a good amount of action but the descriptions of that action ruin some of the excitement of the confrontations. The large scale attack on Tyrsis is probably the worst offender. Such a big battle with such important ramifications should have been one of the most thrilling aspects of the book. Instead, it falls flat because Brooks is unable to juggle the individual stakes with the larger movement of entire battalions and armies. The micro and the macro descriptions are competing instead of working together. You also have to admit that even though I defended the book’s similarities to The Lord of the Rings, there are so many of them that it’s distracting, particularly in the first half of the novel. My last point of criticism is that there is only one female character in 700+ pages. Worse, she’s nothing more than a love interest for one of the main characters and that’s a real shame.

It’s undeniable that the Shannara series has had a lasting influence, you only need to look at the most recent publication to see that it’s been ongoing for decades. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a worthwhile debut. Brooks essentially writes adventure stories the size of epic narratives without the depth of those epics. It makes for a long read but an overall enjoyable one. It bothers me a little that Brook gets so much flak for using ideas that were popularized in Tolkien’s work. He’s certainly not the only one to have done so. Every person writing in the genre (regardless of which medium), following the publication of Lord of the Rings owes Tolkien a debt, whether they’ll admit it or not. Even writers who publicly dismiss Tolkien in favour of other fantasy grandmasters write books that are influenced by Tolkien. In those cases, the work is characterized by the conscious effort to write something that is distinctly dissimilar from Tolkien. My point is that we should get over it. Tolkien’s influence is an integral part of the genre and it will continue to exist throughout the years, even if the context in which it exists will change. Admittedly, it’s unfortunate when you encounter a look-a-like book like The Swords of Shannara but I’m willing to forgive Brooks for a few reasons. It was his first book and in that same book, there are many elements that prove that Brooks used Tolkien as a starting point, not an end point. Though this is the first time I read something by Brooks, his continuously successful career as a writer for nearly forty years suggests that I’m correct in saying he grew out of it. Brooks isn’t the only offender and I’m certain there must be even greater offenders (let me know in the comments if you know of one).

 Brooks kind of fucked up, but his editor, Lester del Rey, should bear more of the blame. He knew what he was buying and publishing whereas Brooks might have been too bright eyed and excited to realize the implications of what he was doing. Lucky for him, The Sword of Shannara is a good book. It’s certainly not a great book, but there is plenty here to think about outside of Tolkien’s obvious influence. There is more depth here than some people care to admit and that’s a shame. It’s also their loss. I’ll definitively be reading the sequel, The Elfstones of Shannara. I’m looking forward to seeing what Brooks does once he’s stepped out of the Professor’s shadow.

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