Thursday, December 22, 2016

Audiobook Review: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

I realize I'm coming a few decades late to this series, but whatever. I got The Sword of Shannara on audiobook in preparation for a long car trip. Here are my thoughts. Spoilers, but again, this has been out for years.

Let's see how many times I can misspell Allanon, shall we?

Summary

When an evil scary undead lich bad guy Druid threatens the Four Lands, the last heir of the line of Shannara has to retrieve the only thing capable of defeating him: a magic sword. Unfortunately, said magic sword is being held by the bad guy himself. So the good Druid Allanon assembles a team of would-be heroes to sneak into enemy territory and steal it. 


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Audiobooks and Annotations: Scott Brick and Terry Brooks

As you can see, the image above is for the 35th anniversary edition annotated by the author. It was the only copy the library had on audiobook. And yes, every single footnote was marked by a shift in narrator as Terry Brooks's voice broke in to explain something or comment. 

Fans may appreciate these annotations (in the voice of the author, no less!) but it was supremely frustrating for a first-time reader/listener. I got pretty good at fast-forwarding, but I also listened to some of the annotations. My favorite comment was the revelation that Brooks had originally planned to kill off most of the cast but decided not to: firstly because his editor didn't want him to, and secondly because he decided to make the book friendly to all ages. That helped me better understand the tone and many of his narrative choices.

However, the annotations were often pointless and annoying. Nine times out of ten, Brooks starts an annotation with something along the lines of, "Over the years, I've gotten many questions from fans about this passage..." and ends it with saying, "What do you think?"

What is the point of providing annotations if you're not going to explain anything? When he's not doing that, he's just using annotations to reiterate in different words what just happened. 

In conclusion: annotated editions for first-time readers are definitely not a good choice, but even if you're a fan I wouldn't seek out the annotated edition. It doesn't contain the meaningful insight or answers you're probably looking for. There's nothing here that you can't find in interviews with Terry Brooks. 

The Book Itself: 3 stars; basically, your mileage may vary.


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I won't be re-reading this, but I'd recommend it to someone with different tastes if I thought they might like it. I'm also willing to give the rest of the series a fair shot.

This is a fantasy classic, so I'm glad I filled my Fantasy Geek TBR requirement (Achievement Unlocked!). I originally grew interested in the series after watching the MTV adaptation, which takes place some 20+ years after the events in The Sword of Shannara. I didn't go into the show with high hopes, but I was pleasantly surprised -- it's up there with my favorite filmed fantasy, and it was a skillfully done adaptation.

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I didn't even mind the teen love triangle, for once. It was kind of cute.

I knew the book was a different story and that writers tend to improve their craft over time. But this is one case where I definitely preferred the adaptation to the source material. 

Despite having to listen through the annotations, I'm really glad I got it on audiobook -- because otherwise, I don't think I would have made it past the beginning. The two brothers are charming (particularly the grumptastic human one) but it's a fairly slow start. The lack of action doesn't bother me; what bugged me was the endless pontificating and moralizing. Monologues. Ugh.

Part of this is a medium thing. Actors can do things in Shakespearean monologues. The camera can do things in film. Monologues are about performance. Luckily, I had Scott Brick to perform it. 

But my issues with this section weren't limited to writing. I could tell the decade this was written from the anti-war and pro-environment messages. Which was fine. I could also tell the decade by the marked difference between this and the show: in The Sword of Shannara, the Druid Council is made up entirely of men, while the show adaptation goes out of its way to explain that it was a gender-inclusive council. The show also includes female characters in government, in the military, and as two of the three main characters. 

It was easy to shrug off the thoughtless sexism as a product of the time period, especially since I know the series gets a lot better about diversity as it goes on. What was harder to sit through were the long, preachy speeches and arguments from Allanon and Shea. It was pretty hard to hear Allanon lecture about how the Druids were the guardians of equality and knowledge and humanism when they only allowed men. I thought my eyes were going to roll right out of my head. 

*looks knowingly into the camera*

The narrator voiced everyone well, but his Allanon was hands-down the best. I could have listened to Scott Brick read the phone book as Allanon. He made those long monologues bearable.

We're Off To See The Wizard, the Evil Wizard of Doom

The plot is an episodic journey story as the gang travels into enemy territory to seek the magic sword. It's classic fantasy, with fights, tombs, and monsters to get through along the way. Menion Leah, the brash and irresponsible wannabe-adventurer, is my favorite. Brooks seems to like separating him from the group and forcing him to grow the hell up through everything from misadventures with tree-sirens to accidentally rescuing kidnapped princesses to fighting serious battles and helping refugees. He's a lot of fun.

The group does get split up in the third act, with each faction taking on some subplot to stop Evil Bad Lich Wizard Guy. Shea, our intrepid hero, ends up in the company of a troll and a thief. Apart from Menion, those two were my favorites. Keltset, the troll, is mute. Shea originally assumes that because he is dumb, he is unintelligent, but his companions quickly disabuse him of this notion (which is nice). Keltset is intelligent, has super strength, is quick on his feet, and expresses his caring for his friends nonverbally. 

While we get hints to his mysterious backstory -- he seems to have been some kind of war hero -- we never get the whole tale, and (surprise, surprise) Brooks's annotations are not helpful in the slightest. 

Also surprise surprise, Keltset dies, because of course he does, he's my favorite character. I mean, I would tag this as a spoiler, but...this book was written in 1977. He dies being crushed under tons of rock as he holds up the collapsing ceiling for his friends to escape. It's one of the gorier deaths.

So About That Ending...

I didn't like the ending much. The climax was...anticlimactic. Spoilers ahead, but, you know, this isn't exactly a secret.

It turns out that the Sword of Shannara's power is revealing the truth. Shea panics when he realizes that that's all it can do. However, he still sticks the bad guy with it. The sword reveals the truth to the Evil Lich Wizard Guy that he's actually dead (and has been dead for a really long time, so...should probably stop walking around and commanding armies of darkness and whatnot). Bad Guy dies. That's it. 

I felt it was an anticlimax. Others may feel differently. I suppose it was clever. 

I also disliked it because several other fantasy novels seem to have latched onto this idea and used it. Books that have followed in its footsteps have been even less effective. The Sword of Shannara makes miles more sense compared to books like Eon and Inheritance which have co-opted its resolution. The sword kills the bad guy because it makes him realize he's supposed to be dead. 

The other books hinge on magically forcing the villains to acknowledge the truth of their actions...but making someone experience empathy is not the same as making them realize the truth. They already know the truth of their evil actions. They just don't care. That is why they are bad guys. 

I know I shouldn't blame The Sword of Shannara for this, but I also sorta feel like it's at least a little bit responsible for a number of cheesy endings.

One Last Thing About Allanon

Allanon is described as being a tall, dark figure with dark clothes and a dark face. However, it's unclear what exactly Brooks means by "dark." Often, it seems to refer to his facial expression being figuratively dark and grim (that's pretty much his main mood). But it might refer to his skin color. The show cast Maori actor Manu Bennett, who is fantastic in the role. I, personally, pictured Samuel L. Jackson while listening, perhaps because Allanon is the Nick Fury of this universe.

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Conclusion

This book is beloved by many. It also established many classic fantasy tropes that are still in use today. You can see the influence of Tolkien, but it's not a Tolkien imitation. It's a decidedly boys'-club adventure story, but a fun read regardless. The only female character is a sweet, understanding princess who's always there for her love interest to cry on her shoulder or whatever, but she's also fairly interesting. Allanon is cool. Friendship is magic. 

Still, I was decidedly underwhelmed. 3/5 stars to the book. 5/5 stars to the audiobook. 

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