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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wards of Faerie by Terry Brooks

I owe Terry Brooks a lot, so much so that I hesitate to write this review. In 1991, I read The Sword of Shannara and opened the door to two decades of imagination. I still rank it as one of my favorite books ever written. I went on to read Elfstones of Shannara and Wishsong of Shannara, both superior novels to the original, as well as the subsequent Heritage of Shannara quartet, a spectacular follow-up series to my memory. Thirteen years later I haven't read any further. Encouraged by Aidan Moher of A Dribble of Ink to give Brooks another go, I picked up Wards of Faerie to see where the wind would take me.

Given that fourteen Shannara books filled the gap between The Talismans of Shannara and Wards of Faerie, I was moderately concerned that I'd be lost among the history of Brooks' creations. I'm happy report that fear unfounded. Brooks newest novel is an ideal place to jump back in with only a few knowledge gaps left unfilled. Unfortunately, I can also report that it is quintessential Brooks with all the good and bad connotations such a description elicits.

Aphenglow Elessedil, a Druid of Paranor, searches through the elven libraries for hints of lost magic. The Druid mission is, after all, to find lost magic for the good of all. She comes across a journal written by an obscure royal child a thousand years ago that tells of the elfstones, now lost to history. While the text reveals little about their whereabouts, Aphenglow believes she has found the first hints to uncovering the legendary elven magic. Beset by assassins and those who would keep the stones hidden, she returns to Paranor to rally the Druids to her discovery.

Now awakened from Druid sleep by Aphenglow's discovery, Khyber Elessedil, first among the Druids, does as all Druids are wont to do dating back to the great Allanon and consults the spirits of Druids long dead at the Hadeshorn, the entry to the underworld. She's given a prophecy of the quest to come:
Even with the help of the Druid Guard, you will need others. Trackers and survivalists and hunters -- men and women who can live off the land -- you will need those. You will need wielders of magic with powers even stronger than those of your Druids. . . 
. . .You must find an Ohmsford to go with you. The presence of an Ohmsford is crucial. . . 
. . .If you choose to undertake this quest, many of those who go with you will die. Many will be lost. At least one will betray you. . . 
. . .No one will come back the same. No one will emerge unscathed. . .
Prophecy! Dark quest! Assemble the party members! And the Ohsmfords sure do pop up a lot in the Four Lands. In fact, I can't recall a Shannara book I've read that didn't feature an Ohmsford prominently. There's also lots of Elessedils and Leahs. I find myself stunned that they're all still kicking around after thousands of years and that each of them seems to breed consistently fortified specimens of heroism. It is of course a massive contrivance that Brooks uses to connect the threads of his novels bringing his old readers back to the well time and again for more tales of the characters they've come to love. In that way,  Wards of Faerie is  a warm blanket for the fantasy reader feeling scared by the encroaching darkness of the anti-heroes, a throwback to the good old days. Laudable perhaps, in so far as there's a readership for such things, but even in that Brooks goes a bridge too far,
Men and women gifted with powerful magic tended to be solitary and nomadic. They did not seek out lives involving families, friends, homes, spouses, and children. They were rootless by choice, keeping apart, hiding their talents, and living their lives behind walls of secrecy.
I've moved beyond wizards on the hill, and I'd hoped everyone had moved beyond women incapable of having mature conversations,
He stared at her, "What happened to your leg? What have I miss while I was away?" 
She smoldered, "Nothing. I don't want to talk about it. At least you noticed. Finally." She glared at him. "Go back to sleep. That's what I'm going to do."
She stomped out of the room without looking back.
I suppose it might be clear at this point that I didn't enjoy Wards of Faerie. That's not an inaccurate statement, but it fails to convey the fact that I had no interest is casting the book aside. Brooks is a storyteller and a good one, pacing and structuring his novel in such a way that urges a reader onward. His prose never bogs down or becomes tiresome even when he's dumping information, a not infrequent occurrence by the way. He succeeds to the degree that Aidan Moher said
Wards of Faerie is the best novel Brooks has written in years, since Ilse Witch in 2000. It’s full of hair-raising escapes, twists to established traditions and set pieces familiar to Shannara fans and characters, interesting magic and monsters and diverse relationships. Wards of Faerie is enough to convince me that Brooks still has what it takes to write a novel worthy of theShannara lineage.
If this is truly the best Terry Brooks book in a decade, then I have to wonder how many readers he has left, so bogged down in his own creation has he become. I agree with Moher to the extent that Brooks clearly still has the chops to produce quality work, a talent I would love to see him levy against something outside the Four Lands. As it stands now I'll continue to insist that each Shannara book is more a caricature of its predecessors than a creation of something new.

While there is something naturally appealing about the stories Brooks creates, the contrivances and unwillingness to move beyond the expected render me once again disinterested. I can't recommend new readers give Wards of Faerie a try, nor old Brooks adherents hoping for improvement.

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At August 14, 2012 at 12:35 PM , Blogger Bob Milne said...

"a warm blanket for the fantasy reader feeling scared by the encroaching darkness of the anti-heroes, a throwback to the good old days"

That, I think, sums up Brooks better than anything else. His stories are comfortable and familiar - you know precisely what you're going to get in terms of character and story, and you know it's going to come in a pleasant package.

He doesn't really offer anything new or remarkable, but it can be nice to revisit things from time to time.


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