The Narration of Shannara

by Arthur B

Terry Brooks? More like Terry Audiobrooks!
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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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