Monday, August 30, 2010

Bearers of the Black Staff

Terry Brooks hits the ground running in his latest Shannara novel, Bearers of the Black Staff. The book opens with Sider Ament, the last remaining Knight of the Word and one of the titular bearers of the staff, tracking two dangerous creatures that have entered the valley he protects. The twist is, nothing has been able to enter or leave that valley for the last 500 years. Sealed off by a magical barrier at the end of 2009's The Gypsy Morph, the valley contains a group of survivors from our own world who fled there to escape the oncoming holocaust that destroyed the world as we know it. Now the barrier is down and a new world filled with new dangers threatens the descendants of the elves, men, and mutants who call the valley home.
Bearers is the first of a duology, The Legends of Shannara, giving more background on how Brooks' signature fantasy world came to be. Though I haven't read all the 'classic' Shannara novels, apparently there were always hints that the Tolkien-esque Shannara world was our own world in the distant future. Brooks is in the process of explaining how that occurred as he links his Knight of the Word books (which take place in contemporary times) with the Shannara books. After nuclear wars and demon attacks and other catastrophes, a new world emerges where magic has returned.
I wasn't surprised that the mutants called lizards in the Genesis of Shannara trilogy are now known as trolls in the world outside the valley. I expect a similar revelation about the mutants called spiders soon. A dragon appears early in the book and there is speculation as to whether it is a mutation or a magical creature somehow returned.
Aside from Sider Ament, the two main protagonists of Bearers are Pantera Qu and Prue Liss, two teenage trackers with abilities beyond those of their fellow mortals. Pan and Prue are also tracking the creatures from outside when Sider stumbles upon them just in time to save them from a messy death. One of the creatures escapes and Sider decides he must track it and kill it lest it bring more of its kind into the now unprotected valley. He sends Prue and Pan off to one of the main human settlements in the valley to warn the valley's inhabitants that the barrier is down.
This sets up Brooks' favorite plot device, that of switching back and forth from two quests. Just when Prue and Pan are captured by trolls we switch to Sider and when Sider is knocked out by the wounded beast he is tracking it's back to Pan and Prue. A spoiled and willful Elf princess will become a viewpoint character a bit later on. Brooks is an old pro and he leaps from character to character, making it seem easy. My only problem with this approach is, there's always a character I don't care much about, the princess in this case, and I get bored during the passages where she's on stage.
I mentioned in my reviews of the three Genesis of Shannara books that those books held my attention because of the 'John Carter effect' where contemporary humans met elves and demons and such. Since Bearers takes place five centuries after the last of the Genesis trilogy, there isn't much of that. We've moved into a pseudo medieval world familiar to readers of Brooks' later Shannara novels and while there are one or two references to modern technology, those are fading fast. Thus, as suspected, I wasn't nearly as taken with Bearers of the Black Staff as I had been with the preceding trilogy. I found myself getting restless at the last third of Bearers as I realized that the book would have to end on numerous cliffhangers leading into the second part. Brooks didn't do this much in his early novels. Most of the early ones had beginnings middles and ends even if they linked to the next novel. Now he's writing true trilogies or in this case a duology.
Anyway, I did enjoy Bearers of the Black Staff quite a bit. There's plenty of action and chases and battles and rescues and all that stuff. In his non fiction book Sometimes the Magic Works Brooks says that he doesn't think of himself as a fantasy writer as much as a writer of adventure stories. His latest book bears that out. Reportedly, after next years conclusion to Legends of Shannara, Brooks is going back the time period after his last 'classic' Shannara books. Don't know if that means the events of the second novel in the duology will leave us set up for First King of Shannara, the book that takes place in the earliest recorded time of the classic books, or if there will be still more to tell of the origins of the world of Shannara. Guess we'll see.

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