Friday, August 08, 2014

The Blade Stands Alone

Terry Brooks has been releasing books in his sprawling Shannara saga for over 35 years (and with regularity for most of that time). But with his latest, The High Druid's Blade, he's doing something he hasn't done since the 1980s: he's releasing a stand-alone Shannara novel. While this book is the first in a set of three known as "The Defenders of Shannara," each of the three will be telling a separate story.

As this is not the first entry in a traditional fantasy trilogy, it should come as no surprise that the story is considerably more compact than most in the genre. The High Druid's Blade follows Paxon Leah, descendant of the series' Leah family line, as he trains to be a protector in the service of the Druids. He has several adventures along the way, beginning and ending with efforts to save his sister from a powerful sorcerer named Arcannen.

Beyond the stand-alone premise, Terry Brooks departs from several other conventions he's built up over his career. Unless you count the historical intermarrying of the Leah and Ohmsford lines, there is no Ohmsford character in this book. Unless you count an extremely minor diversion in a single chapter, there is no romantic subplot here, as Brooks has inevitably included in his past adventures. (All that said, the book isn't quite stand-alone. Brooks has stated that some characters introduced here will reappear in the next two books. And while the protagonist's journey does resolve by the final page, the story does leave some open threads that could be picked up on in the next book.)

This is the shortest of the Shannara novels, noticeably so. And frankly, I was nearly halfway through it before I actually started to like it. The opening half is very episodic in nature. The overall story is one of Paxon undergoing his "Jedi training." This unfolds in the form of stand-alone chapters that describe a particular exercise, and self-contained little two-or-three chapter adventures out in the field. Each feels like a short story in an "Adventures of Paxon Leah" anthology, and collectively I wasn't very satisfied by them.

But then things take a rather dark turn, by Terry Brooks standards. Brooks has always been a generally optimistic writer. He has killed off significant characters before, and put others through an emotional wringer. But by and large, his writing simply isn't as dark as others in his genre. So in this book, when he describes in detail the horrible torture endured by one of his characters over the course of multiple chapters, it's quite shocking -- more so than similar material might be from another author. This instantly ups the stakes, and when the rest of the book suddenly turns to the fallout from this event, the story becomes far more compelling. A book that I was ready to pan suddenly became quite a page turner.

Still, a simple weighing of the two "parts" of this book results in a whole that isn't worth the highest of marks. I'd give The High Druid's Blade a B overall, a reflection of the slog you must get through to reach the good stuff. Fortunately, since the book is short, the slog doesn't take that long. (But then again, neither does the higher quality conclusion.) It's not one of Brooks' better efforts, though it's one his fans probably won't want to miss.

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