Monday, June 4, 2012
Legend -- Wait For It -- Ary?
Staff is set 500 years after the events of the "Genesis of Shannara" trilogy that saw a small group of Elves, Humans and others safe in a magically-protected valley while the world around them was destroyed in a combined nuclear holocaust, ecological catastrophe and magical firestorm. Over that time, those people have coexisted, albeit uneasily, safe from the ravages of the outside world and the monsters that live there. But now the magic barrier has fallen, and Sider Ament, the last bearer of the Black Staff formerly wielded by the Knights of the Word, has to convince the leaders of the different communities that their homes are in danger. Panterra Qu and Prue Liss, two young human Trackers, and the Elf Princess Phryne Amarantyne will help him. But Skeal Eile, a Sepharic of the Children of the Hawk religion, thinks the idea of the barrier falling without a return of the magical man Hawk who created it, is blasphemy -- and he may not rely on spiritual means in order to fight back. Palace intrigue among the Elves will play its role, and meanwhile a Troll army masses outside the valley, waiting to attack (If you're wondering where the "Shannara" is, they don't actually show up for awhile in Brooks' history of the world. Ask the Del Rey marketing department why the name is used about a story centuries prior to that family name emerging).
As you'd expect, Brooks' heroes are heroic and his villains villainous, and it will take courage, daring and a willingness to fight until the last in order for the good guy to prevail. But he's been writing the same story for thirty years now, so he ought to be able to get it right. Sider's magical knowledge gives him some insight into events, but he keeps his own counsel and only tells others what he believes they need to know. Panterra, Prue and Phryne are plucky young folks whose impetuous natures will get them into trouble that their own bravery and daring can barely handle. Skeal and his allies scheme and plot, emerging from behind the scenes only when ready to strike. Anyone expecting something different from a Terry Brooks novel hasn't been paying attention. Digging at it too closely, say by asking why the refugees from the "Genesis of Shannara" trilogy needed to be hidden by magic if people and some others managed to survive the Great War without magical help, is not recommended.
But Staff, more than much of his work since completing the original Shannara trilogy in 1985, is hampered by lazy shortcuts like the all-too-frequent telling instead of showing choice Brooks makes time and time again. It also limps back to one of the grayest of graybeard hack clichés, the evil, narrow-minded religious leader (played in this novel by Skeal Eile). That part's sort of an irony, given how much preaching Brooks does about how people still haven't learned their lesson about caring for the environment and a number of his other favorite issues.
And the laziness is frustrating, because Brooks has improved his narrative skills immensely since The Sword of Shannara came out in 1977. That original novel was a top adventure story told as a clunky mess, like a great piece of apple pie that's fallen apart on your plate but still tastes delicious. The opening pages of Staff, which describe Sider's solitary patrol around the edges of the magic barrier, are some of Brooks' best work. They sketch a scene completely and deftly, draw vivid word pictures and set a tone of lonely watchfulness. But then the rest of the book happens, and it's like watching a favorite actor play a scene with someone you can't stand. You don't want to miss your favorite, but you just about kick a hole in the TV when the other one shows up.
My suggestion of a five-year or even longer gap between books might not help. Brooks may not be capable of that much development or of imposing enough discipline on himself to show instead of tell and spend some time letting readers explore his characters instead of listening to the narrator tell us about them. And I doubt any modern publisher who has a cash machine like Brooks and the Shannara series in hand would accept stepping on the brake.
But I'd sure like to read the book that might happen if they did.