I suppose that it would be best to start this review by describing my decision to buy The Sword of Shannara in the first place. I have read a lot of fantasy in the past and quite a bit of what I still have in my bookshelves is fantasy based, this is a hangover from when fantasy was my staple genre, back in the day. I tended to read around a small number of authors. Two that spring straight to mind are R.A.Salvator who’s forgotten realms books were brilliant, and David Gemmell who produced some (IMHO) sublime fiction along with some pretty trashy hack and slash! I did read a few others, but I have a bit of a back log of David Eddings, Robert Jordan and Stephen Donaldson (among others) that all hail from that time in my life. Since then my taste has grown and expanded, but so too has fantasy with spectacular work from the likes of Joe Abercrombie (Did I mention I really really like the first law trilogy? If not, I have now. Brilliant books…)
I have, over many years, also dabbled with writing books. My best friend in school and I used to talk about books and writing constantly. He managed to write a whole book while he was doing his A-Levels, but although I thought it was great, he didn’t think it was good enough to send to any publishers, so it is still sitting in his metaphorical bottom drawer… In more recent years I have read a couple of books by successful authors about how they write and about writing theory in general. At least one of these mentioned that The Sword of Shannara was a pivotal book in the development of fantasy, being published at the start of (or being part of the initiation of?) a big rise in the popularity of the genre. This thought skipped gaily into my head one day while I was staring at a rack of books in a charity shop. “Coo,” said I, “there’s that book wot i dun read ’bout.” I bought it, stashed it in the book shelf and that was the end of that episode of my literary life.
With a back story like that it was with more than a little trepidation that I started The Sword of Shannara. Was I going to love it and understand how this book started a fantasy revolution? Or was I going to find it a bit sedentary, the first of a genre introduced with a dodgy basic plot and simple characterisation? The answer is actually a bit of both.
I cottoned on quite early that The Sword of Shannara was, shall we say, quite closely aligned to J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was a bit miffed at this to be honest. Firstly, because you have a good idea of the main plot, and secondly, this was meant to be a seminal work (relatively speaking.) It helped launch the fantasy genre into the main stream, and it did it by almost completely nicking the main plot and characterisations from the grand master himself. I almost put the book down. Almost, but I didn’t. I had read to a point just short of half way through the book. I managed to push through acceptance of the LOTR thing. My endurance was rewarded with some really great new characters and a post apocalyptic angle that was similar to the Jon Shannow books by David Gemmell. (did David G get the idea from here – The Sword of Shannow!) Linking Fantasy worlds to ours in any way is dangerous. You have to walk a tightrope to keep the integrity of the story without mixing styles too much. I was surprised to find this plot line in one of the first modern fantasy books, but pleasantly surprised. I was by this point really enjoying the story, it had that fantasy style, so that I saw parallels with the books that I have read, and the book was finding its own voice with the remaining plot. But. This book was still not in the bag for me. I was still finding the quality of the writing challenging. Not plot or direction or even the majority of general grammar! There were loads of niggly little writing inconsistencies. These ranged from descriptive issues (fire made by Gnomes was “man” made) to the way that characters sometimes acted (being quite quiet then suddenly angry for no reason.) It felt like Terry Brooks had tried a bit too hard with the description and in doing so, over-cooking it and managed to add the odd problem. But I didn’t put the book down, and I am glad I didn’t.
So, everything picked up. The story diverged somewhat from LOTR, I found less issue with the writing and everything evened out into a better second half. It appears that this change occurred when Pannamon Creed and Ketleset joined the story. I have a feeling that they really did work on the plot, and the author) in the way that strong characters should. They re-invigorated everything. They gave a fresh viewpoint on what was happening, and I am glad to say that they stayed true to what I hoped they would be, even to the end of the book.
In conclusion, The Sword of Shannara is a good book. There were some pretty big problems with it, but I can see why it was part of the spark that started much more wide spread expansion of the fantasy genre. The book was published in 1977, and the original Dungeons and Dragons came out in 1974, so I think Shannara was part of the push, and not the instigator. Either way, if you like Fantasy, this book is worth a read. Just be aware of the odd foible and you will be fine.
What the papers said at the time – Wikipedia