Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Childish Thoughts

Every year, like clockwork, fantasy author Terry Brooks releases a new novel. This year finds him in the middle of a loose "trilogy" of stand-alone stories that involve the same core group of characters. Following up on last year's The High Druid's Blade, this year brings us The Darkling Child.

Thwarted in his previous machinations against the Druids, the dark sorcerer Arcannen has been forced into hiding. Now his anger at the Druids is eclipsed by a new target -- an amoral Federation commander who wipes out the village that was secretly harboring him. In pursuit of vengeance, Arcannen has found a young teenager named Reyn Frosch. If the boy can be manipulated by Arcannen, his powerful magic can be used against the Federation. But the Druid Council, and their protector Paxon Leah, are hot on the trail now that Arcannen has reemerged.

When I reviewed The High Druid's Blade, I noted that the novel started off weak, only to improve in the back half as it ventured into darker territory. The Darkling Child, unfortunately, takes the opposite journey. The opening 100 pages set up a number of interesting situations and characters that are among the most nuanced Terry Brooks has created in several books. The villain of the piece, Arcannen, has a legitimate grievance against the Federation, putting him in a moral grey area. The new character of Reyn is believably conflicted over his magical abilities. And another new character, Lariana, is introduced in an intriguing manner that makes you question her loyalties and motivations.

But as the novel continues, we see the price of Brooks' reliable release schedule: there's a formula to his writing. And no matter how tantalizing and different the set-up might be in this case, the conclusion races right back toward the familiar, beaten path. Arcannen loses the moral high ground in his own cartoonish villainy. Lariana's self-serving personality is almost immediately subsumed by an unbelievable romance. And Reyn bobs around with no agency in the story whatsoever.

Still, the novel might work better if it actually had room to unfold naturally. It's an unusually short-for-a-fantasy-novel 300 total pages, and telling the story in such a short space requires every character to make a hairpin turn to facilitate the plot. Characters fall into love, disillusionment, and fury faster than can be believed. And it all leads to a conclusion that's not nearly as self-contained as the first book of this not-so-loose-after-all trilogy.

Ultimately, I was disappointed after a very promising start. Or perhaps I'm just disappointed that the fantasy genre is leaving behind Terry Brooks, one of the writers most directly responsible for bringing it to prominence. In the halo of enjoyment I had reading some of Brooks' prior books, I can see my way to rating this one a B-. But it's hard to recommend it to anyone. It's not clever enough to recommend to someone who has never read Terry Brooks before, and it's too familiar to recommend to anyone who has.

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