Review: Shannara trilogy

Recently I finished The Wishsong of Shannara, the third installment of Terry Brooks’ Shannara trilogy. The other books are The Sword of Shannara and The Elfstones of Shannara. This fantasy series is remarkable because it is  not set in a far and forgotten past or in some other universe but in the far future. After a nuclear war all technology is destroyed and replaced by magic.

The Shannara trilogy is not really a trilogy, not in the sense that it is one story spread across three books. Essentially it consists of three separate but related stories. In theory one could start with book 2 or 3 without missing anything. Though there are several references to the previous books, those are not essential to the story line of the later books.

Nevertheless there is some continuity between the books as the stories are centered around the Ohmsford family and the druid Allanon. The Ohmsfords happen to be the descendants of the legendary Elf king Jerle Shannara and as a result hereof they have the necessary abilities to fight the evil powers that threaten their world. Allanon is the last druid and is the only one who knows the danger the world is in.

The setting of the stories is a region known as the Four Lands (North, West, South and East). The Ohmsfords are living in the South in the Shady Vale, a remote and isolated community. Southland is the home of the Human race, whereas the Westland is the home of the Elves, the North is occupied by Trolls and the East by Dwarfs and Gnomes.

As pointed out in the first book, Humans, Dwarfs, Trolls and Gnomes have a common ancestry and this diversification is plausibly the result of genetic engineering. Elves, however, are an ancient race which have coexisted with Humans even before the Great War.

While reading the books I noticed some conflicting remarks on the distances in the Four Lands. At one point people travel from east to west in a couple of days, whereas at other points the characters needs weeks to travel a seemingly short distance. Though I do not think this is really a big issue, there are more issues with Brooks’ world building.

Terry Brooks has an interesting concept of having a fantasy series set in a post-apocalyptic future. But it lacks the depth of, say, a Wheel of Time. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the world building is bad but I think Brooks could have done better.

For instance, we do not learn anything about the world beyond the Four Lands. Given the described distances, they can hardly cover the entire world and so there should be more beyond their borders. Are those parts of the world inhabited and who lives there? Or are those inhabitable?

Also the story’s magic system seems to me as “weak” as it depends upon illusions and people’s believe. Therefore it is unclear to what extent magic can affect the real world and if it could produce lasting effects. Similarly problematic is the distinction between real and illusionary beings. The latter could cause real harm but it is not explained how that is possible.

Another point of critique is that the books are quite formulaic, i.e. they have more or less the same plot structure. The main characters are living a quiet live and suddenly Allanon shows up to tell them the world is in danger and that only they can defeat the forces of evil. After a dangerous journey they manage to destroy the evil powers.

Though I like the Ohmsfords, as they are decent folks, I am not sure what to think of Allanon. On one hand he is devoted to fight evil but on the other hand he tells his charges only half-truths and he is often impatient when dealing with them. Too often he retorts to “you should do so, because I say so” when his companions are questioning his commands. And if he bothers to explain stuff, it is only reluctantly and only because his charges would not follow him without explanation.

Of course, Allanon is excused – at least to some extent – by the fact that the existential threats the world is facing and something needs to be done. However, I am not convinced he is actually suited to be a mentor despite being a great scholar. But then he is the only druid left and it is up to him to instruct the story’s hero.

Compared to a Dumbledore or a Moiraine, I find Allanon quite unlikable as a mentor figure.

Overall I enjoyed reading these three books, Shannara is nice but great. The books are more a kind of snack than a main course dish: fine if you want to read some fantasy but have little time for a big series like Wheel of Time.

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