The Narration of Shannara

by Arthur B

Terry Brooks? More like Terry Audiobrooks!
Audiobooks are a thing I have recently found a very specific niche for in my life - namely, I like to listen to them when I'm on a long drive, since I find that listening to a spoken word story makes it feel like I have company in the car and provides the perfect balance between being interesting enough to hone my attention but not distracting enough to actually divert that attention from the road.

Of course, when listening to audiobooks for this purpose, choice of subject matter is a delicate and important thing. You obviously don't want to listen to something with ornate, finely-crafted prose which you will want to read and savour in printed form. And you definitely don't want a story which is so complex as to be distracting - or so detailed that if you don't listen to any more of it for a month or so you end up entirely lost the next time you pick it up. For this purpose, I've found epic fantasy to be more than suitable fodder.

Specifically, it's prompted me to rediscover the dubious pleasures of Terry Brooks' Shannara series.

The Sword of Shannara takes place in what, so far as I can make out, is intended to be a world centuries after a devastating nuclear war. As you might expect with such things, the geopolitical lie of the land has been radically simplified as a result; in the region the story unfolds in, there is the Southland, home to human beings, the Westland, home to the elves who had apparently been off in magic land before the war and then came back afterwards, then in the Eastland you have the dwarves who are mutant humans who ended up all short due to living in cramped underground fallout shelters for generations, and lastly in the Northland you have similarly mutated humans in the form of the gnomes and the trolls.

In Shady Vale, a sleepy village in the Southland, there is an inn belonging to the Ohmsford family. Flick Ohmsford is a typical robust young Valeman, taking after his father; Shea Ohmsford is smaller and slighter, being the half-elven son of a distant cousin of the Ohmsfords who left Shea with them before dying. Shea has been adopted into the family and brought up as a brother to Flick, which is lucky because he will need all the help he can get, for unbeknownst to him he is the last direct descendant of Jerle Shannara, ancient king of the elves.

This is important because, as the mysterious Allanon shows up to explain, this means that only Shea can use the power of the Sword of Shannara, a magical blade forged to destroy the Warlock Lord. The Warlock Lord was once, centuries ago, a member of the same order of Druids as Allanon - a cabal out to rediscover and protect the ancient wisdom of the pre-war era and ensure that such knowledge was used responsibly - but the Warlock Lord decided to take shortcuts to power and researched the ways of the occult, which eventually gave him vast magical power and mastery of the Northland. Now, as he does every few generations, he intends to spark a massive war to conquer the world, and Shea needs to get his hustle on to retrieve the Sword. But what can one dude with a sharp stick do against the awe-inspiring power of the Warlock Lord?

This is about as straight-ahead bog-standard as high fantasy gets, and is often derided for being unoriginal. Admittedly, there's something to the charges of unoriginality. Numerous important components of the novel conspire to create the impression that Brooks has read no other works of fantasy, and might have read no other books whatsoever, outside of Tolkien before setting to work on this. You have a reluctant hero coaxed out of sitting around in a safe and comparatively luxurious part of fantasyland by a wandering wizardy sage with a mysterious backstory. You have a quest to take down the Dark Lord, using an item which constitutes his one weakness. You have an expansive party of humans, elves and dwarves assembled to help the hero, who scatter to the four winds at a particular point in the narrative. You have a long trek across the blighted landscape of the Dark Lord's home turf. You have battles and desperate sieges taking place to keep the characters who don't march into the dark land busy. You have a king brought low by an evil advisor's manipulation. You have a snivelling, pathetic little creature becoming supernaturally fixated on the magic item which is the object of the grand quest, with the long-term result that they end up dying in an absurd accident during the final climactic moments of the quest. You have a Dark Lord who spends by far the majority of the novel firmly offstage and who makes his presence known mostly through his sinister wraithlike agents. You have a comparative lack of female characters. You have a bildungsroman format.

You get the picture.

Oddly, this would be less annoying than it is if Sword were mere pastiche; as it stands, though, there's flashes of something a bit more original flickering here and there in the undergrowth, and thanks to all the Tolkien mimicry it's all too easy to overlook it. For instance, there's the whole "wake of a nuclear war" thing, which is at its most prominent when the party camps out in a ruined modern city and gets attacked by an archaic killbot. The fact that the city is almost entirely overgrown is a particularly nice touch which suggests that Brooks had given at least some research to the question of just how quickly human settlements would be reclaimed by nature.

On top of that, Brooks shows a knack for adding in a bit of classic swashbuckling adventure of a sort that Tolkien never really dabbled in. Perhaps the best example of this is the whole "evil advisor" subplot, which despite looking like a riff on Tolkien when considered in the abstract looks more like a riff on Dumas when you zoom in and look at the specifics. Indeed, Allanon himself appears to consciously practice the sort of realpolitik and manipulation other authors mistake for wisdom when they have their Gandolf stand-ins do it. For instance, the real power of the Sword to defeat the Warlock Lord is a somewhat hokey, trite thing - it is not the power of friendship, or the power of believing in itself, but it's in the same general ballpark - and at the end of the book when Shea asks why Allanon didn't just tell him, Allanon explains that a) Shea probably wouldn't have believed him, b) even if Shea had believed him, the explanation is so absurd as to be demoralising, since there was very little chance of Shea believing it would actually work, and c) in general Allanon just didn't have that much confidence in Shea, which he's a little embarrassed about. This is far more grubbily believable than the whole "I always believed in you, random sap with no appreciable applicable skills I plucked out of a kitchen!" that third-rate high fantasy wizards usually spout.

For that matter, Brooks also seems refreshingly honest with himself about how the characters come across; Shea spends much of the book being a weedy, weepy wimp, and at the climax he actually has to confront and accept the fact that he is a weedy, weepy wimp.

The main problem I have with Sword is, happily, a problem that is somewhat alleviated by listening whilst driving: Brooks over-explains everything, to an extent that plot twists are signalled miles in advance and parts of the book become extremely repetitive, as he spends an entire paragraph to explain five times what could be explained once in a terse sentence. Some plot points are particularly laboured in this way - over and over and over again, Brooks has the same characters going through the same "Allanon is keeping secrets from us and not telling how the Sword is supposed to work!" mental process. Were I reading the prose, this would be maddening, but it's really handy when driving, because I can be confident that if I miss something because I am concentrating too hard on the road it will be explained to me again in short order.

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Comments (go to latest)
Ronan Wills at 13:53 on 2016-01-22
I recently took a stab at the first few chapters of this as blog fodder. It wasn't so much the unoriginality of the plot that got to me, so much as the fact that the story, world and characters are deeply, crushingly uninteresting. The whole post-apocalypse thing is interesting in theory (and to be fair I didn't get anywhere near the ruined cities or killbot), but when the book starts off with the characters living in a convivial fantasy inn in a twee little fantasy hamlet in the forest I have a hard time caring about what else the setting includes.

Although I did get a kick out of the fact that the Mordor analogue is named the Skull Kingdom.
Arthur B at 14:20 on 2016-01-22
There are interesting characters in the book, it's just that Allanon's entire game plan hinges on covering up how interesting he actually is, and the Ohmsfords are the absolute least interesting characters around, possibly in the entire series.

Admittedly, the killbot bit is more or less the only part where the postapocalypse stuff really prompts a deviation from the high fantasy playbook. Apparently the later books in the series include somewhat more overt appearances of sci-fi technology.
Sören Heim at 17:26 on 2016-01-22
Of course, when listening to audiobooks for this purpose, choice of subject matter is a delicate and important thing. You obviously don't want to listen to something with ornate, finely-crafted prose which you will want to read and savour in printed form.

I have found that audiobooks are a great means of discovering the melodic riches of "ornate, finely-crafted prose", qualities of sound one tends to overlook when just reading. But it's true that it's hard to follow a complex novel on tape. I use audio for re- and rereredading most of the time, which works quite well for me since drifting away and not listening isn't that much of a problem if you already know what's going on...
Arthur B at 18:11 on 2016-01-22
I think there's a distinction between prose which works really well in written form, and prose which works really well spoken, and the Venn diagram of the two has a substantial amount of overlap but the overlap is not absolute.
Sören Heim at 08:52 on 2016-01-23
Agreed, though I am having much more trouble with listening to novels I would usually skim through... Sometimes it's sort of a "have to", though. I don't find as much time to read as I used to, but still a lot to listen (drives, as you said, cleaning, even eating...)
Craverguy at 04:55 on 2016-01-24
Is this the series that has the horrible Objectivist politics?
Michal at 05:14 on 2016-01-24
There was a shortage of fantasy book title options and also a very narrow range of fantasy author names back then. You're thinking of Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth.
Ichneumon at 08:27 on 2016-01-24
Brooks began publishing a good fifteen to twenty years before Goodkind, and despite sort of being the epitome of That One Modern High Fantasy Writer is apparently a rather pleasant man. I have no idea about Goodkind on the personal front, though, beyond the fact that his moral attitudes are fairly alarming and probably don't make him the most affable of party guests. at 20:45 on 2016-03-03
Wow. I thought "this is rather clichéd" while watching the Lord of the Rings movies (I like them, but really more for the style than the plot or characters), but of course, Tolkien invented the clichés, so he's got a good excuse. But this sounds like barely disguised plagiarism. And "Warlock Lord"? Seriously? And it's not a genre parody?

I guess this explains why they skipped the first book in this series when they decided to make a TV series out of the Shannara novels. (I haven't watched it yet, but aside from low production values and a cast that apparently doesn't have the acting experience / inherent Britishness most people expect in High Fantasy, I've gathered that at least the cast isn't so overwhelmingly male.)

I find audio books to be very useful to keep my thought processes from turning in on themselves (in ways relating to depression / anxiety disorder) during activities that don't require mental concentration (cleaning, gardening, etc.) and while falling asleep. At the same time, it's the only way I've found I can get through some books that are either boring plot-wise, or worse, cursed with overly lengthy and dry prose. For example an audio version was the only way I finally made it through "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, after giving up twice somewhere in the Lothlorien episode during my teens. Ditto the latter Harry Potter books. And I'm currently listening to The Magicians' Guild trilogy by Trudi Canavan, who, despite the YA-typical plot and characters, seems to think her readers are 10-year-olds with the memory of a goldfish who need everything explained not once but again and again. (Well, actually, I've been re-listening my way through old Pratchett novels for the last couple of weeks, as a palate cleanser, because the social implications of the former started to piss me off too much – hetero romance between a female teenage student and her previously emotionally abusive over-30 teacher, who also murdered innocent people in the past but is supposedly a good guy; gay relationship between characters that never ever seem to touch, while the hetero characters have pillow talk scenes…) And I wish I had found an audio version for Aliette de Bodard's Aztec mystery / fantasy novels, instead of having to slog through the interminable descriptions of people's clothes by myself.

For me, it's not so much useful if an audio book is over-explaining stuff or getting repetitive, but it just doesn't bother me as much if I'm doing something else at the same time and can momentarily 'tune out', save in the knowledge that the reader will get through that part in a few minutes. (I just can't skim while I'm reading. I'm more prone to get so exasperated with the writing style that I give up on the book entirely.)

But it really does have to be a talented reader. Jim Butcher's Dresden Files are perhaps made more enjoyable by James Marsters' reading (so much so that the one book he couldn't do due to scheduling conflicts was recently re-released with Marsters as a narrator, due to popular demand). And the Discworld novels certainly benefit from Steven Briggs' voice-acting. On the other hand, I've found novels that I enjoyed reading almost ruined by a mediocre or just badly chosen audio book narrator. This unfortunately happens especially with the more niche novels (read: scifi / fantasy with non-straight and/or PoC protagonists) which usually aren't written by big name authors with guaranteed high sales. It's understandable – high quality voice actors cost more than some random guy - but still, it's regrettable if the result is something I can't bear to listen to, and so I don't get to re-experience some of my favorite novels unless I can actually make time to read for hours on end.
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2016-08-10
Interesting. I guess I have an easier time following audiobooks than you do, Arthur, and keeping track of what's going on. I sometimes find myself in the position of putting down a book (audio or otherwise) for weeks, even months at a time, but I can usually pick it back up again and get back into the flow of the story with little trouble. All the memory space which ought to be devoted to remembering things like people's names, or “where have I seen you before, again?” seems instead to be occupied with remembering stories in some detail for long stretches of time.

I listen to audiobooks all the time in my day-to-day life (my iPod is overrun with audiobooks and podcasts, and only a smattering of songs), and since really good prose isn't something I prioritize, I usually go with the audio format if I can manage it and don't worry if I'm missing out on the author's use of language. One thing you and I can agree on, though, is that audiobooks are superb for car trips. I find them a great means of fending off boredom without taking up too much of my brainspace to impede my ability to respond to the needs of the road. For whatever reason, I'm also able to follow fairly complex material while I'm driving—at least as well as when I'm not driving—so I don't have to be too discriminating about what kinds of books are for in the car as opposed to out of the car.

On the subject of the Shannara novels and the first one's lack of originality, I remember listening to a podcast interview of Orson Scott Card—whose fiction I still have a soft spot for, even if I find his politics more repellent every time I come in contact with them—and I recall him commenting that he couldn't get through Sword of Shannara because it was so patently derivative, but that Brooks has done good things with the setting since then because “he's a good writer.” I remember being struck by this latter claim, because I recalled my mother once remarking that Brooks' writing is really bad, and my mother is probably the most undiscriminating reader I have ever met. (Let's just say it was no surprise that she was the only one of the five of us who saw Oz, the Great and Powerful in the theater who actually liked it.)

Apart from one abridged audiobook when I was a kid, I have no experience with the series, and no opinions on it one way or the other.

I must say, though, I don't consider the “Medieval fantasy setting is actually a post-apocalyptic future Earth” all that innovative. I felt the same way when we had the Prince of Thorns discussion a couple of years back. I can imagine it was fresh when Brooks began writing, but it seems downright cliché by this point.

Cheriola: And I wish I had found an audio version for Aliette de Bodard's Aztec mystery / fantasy novels, instead of having to slog through the interminable descriptions of people's clothes by myself.

Yeah, lack of an audiobook version is the only reason I haven't dug into her novels thus far. I'm a slow reader, and there are so many other books ahead of hers in my reading queue.

the Discworld novels certainly benefit from Steven Briggs' voice-acting.

No kidding. Although I think Nigel Planer has an edge over Brooks when it comes to voicing Death.

I don't think I've ever had bad narration actually ruin an audiobook for me, but I've definitely encountered ones where I heard the narrator and said to myself 'Really? this is the voice we're going for with this book? *deep sigh* O-kay then …' And now that you mention it, one of the most recent times I had that experience was with a book I specifically sought out because it had a non-binary protagonist, so that part fits, also.
Arthur B at 22:13 on 2016-08-15
If you're actually bothering to read the hardcopy rather than just having the audiobook on in the background it isn't so much as "Terabrooks" as a "mistake".
Cheriola at 20:55 on 2017-08-09
Thread-necromancy because I never bothered to answer this:

@Robinson L:

I don't think I've ever had bad narration actually ruin an audiobook for me, but I've definitely encountered ones where I heard the narrator and said to myself 'Really? this is the voice we're going for with this book? *deep sigh* O-kay then …' And now that you mention it, one of the most recent times I had that experience was with a book I specifically sought out because it had a non-binary protagonist, so that part fits, also.

Since I just mentioned the Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling in another comment: Book 4 of those (Shadow's Return) was one case where the narrative voice really grated for me.
Now, I really loved the first 3 books in that series, but then the author went on a decade-long break between those and the fourth book. To quickly recap for myself, I listened to some old audiobook version of the first 3 books (which was a little unprofessional, with a narrator with quite a strong American accent, who often couldn't maintain a natural sentence rhythm and who pronounced most of the fantasy names differently than I had in my head - but okay). Then I started the new audiobook of the 4th novel, which had a different narrator - one who made one of the main protagonists sound like a bratty teenager, which certainly had not been the case before. (Said character has a complicated characterization in the first 3 books where it comes to his physical and mental age, but most of the time he can be equated to a 21-year-old who was forced to grow up fast because he ran away from home at the age of 14. For a long stretch at the beginning of the series, the narrative makes you think he's 30+, because he's so unnaturally mature for his age. The firest audiobook narrator usually makes him sound like he's 40.) This new narrator just emphazided and kept reminding me of the author's choice to change this protagonist's characterization to display immature / unprofessional behaviour far more often and even in situations where it doesn't make any sense, which was just one of a long list of problems in that book that made this series continuation such a deep disappointment to me. (The scars from that are part of the reason I've become so reluctant to read/watch sequels of something I really liked in the first installment.)

If you ever read / listen to the Nightrunner series, do yourself a favour and stop after book 3. These days, there are more fantasy series with non-tragic, non-heteronormative heroes around - you don't have to stick with this one until after the author stopped giving a toss about good writerly craft (like not putting in tons of continuity errors and retcons) or genuinely progressive social politics. (Lots of what went wrong with Shadow's Return can probably be explained with the author having been introduced to yaoi by her fans and encouraged to adopt its genre conventions, which are not really compatible with Western intersectional feminism.)

I'm curious, which book with a non-binary protagonist were you talking about?
Robinson L at 22:02 on 2017-08-11
I'm curious, which book with a non-binary protagonist were you talking about?

Took me a day or two to remember the title: it was “Lizard Radio” by Pat Schmatz. Creative world-building, even though dystopias aren’t exactly my favorite, but I wasn’t enamored with the narrator, sorry to say.
Cheriola at 04:26 on 2017-08-12
Hm... How bad a dystopia are we talking about here? I don't mind reading such in principle, as long as it's not relentlessly depressing (like The Handmaid's Tale) or specifically designed to make the life of LGBT characters even worse than in real life, because the author thinks that tragedy is the only way to inspire sympathy. I'm reading the phrase "government-run Cropcamp" in a review right now, and I'm thinking: Gulag? Or just like when my mother had to work a few weeks as a farmhand / harvest helper as part of her non-agriculturally-related university studies, which no-one liked, but which served to make the whole class bond quickly?

Also, I'm reading the phrases "poetic style" and "flowery language" and I get flashbacks to Wraeththu... I have a relatively low tolerance for purple prose. How bad is it, compared to, say, an Anne Rice novel?
Robinson L at 18:00 on 2017-08-12
The dystopian angle isn't too bad. More regimentation and indoctrination and generally restricted freedoms than, say, the North American Indian Schools of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some characters die, but it's not like they're in The Hunger Games, or anything. And the society isn't particularly oppressive towards non-binary people, it's pretty much an equal opportunity oppressor.

I confess I didn't completely understand what the story was doing with the non-binary characters, but my best recollection from when I listened to it a year ago was that the protagonist's treatment was treated as more discordant than traumatizing. That might just be because I missed some undertones which actual non-binary readers would more likely pick up on, though.

I've never read Anne Rice, and even if I had, I'm afraid I'm the last you want person to ask for a consultation on prose. It has to be damn near ultraviolet for me to recognize - and that's just in print form. I'm not sure if I've ever noticed bad prose in audio format. Sorry.
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