Monday, September 14, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Book Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

This well-known fantasy novel is one that I have started reading several times over the years, but never progressed to far because I quickly become annoyed by its glaring similarities to J.R.R. Tolkien’s seminal Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  But I decided once again to give it a shot as part of my audio adventures and finally managed to trek through the entire book.

As the story begins, we learn that the evil wizard Sauron . . . I mean the Warlock Lord . . . is planning his conquest of Middle Earth . . . I mean The Four Lands . . . where the races of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, gnomes, and trolls live.  The wizard Gandalf . . . er . . . Allanon comes to the Shire . . . make that Shady Vale . . . and tells Frodo . . . no, Shea Ohmsford . . . that the one ring Sword of Shannara is crucial to defeating the Warlock Lord and that Shea will be a key figure in his downfall.  Shea then sets off with Sam . . . make that his brother Flick . . . and meets the mysterious Strider . . . er . . . Balinor (who is the heir to the throne) and they join up with the dwarf Gimli Hemdel and the elf Legolas Durin along with his brother Dale.  This fellowship . . . make that company . . . then sets off on a journey to find the sword and defeat the dark lord.

Okay, there are definitely plenty of similarities between this story and Tolkien’s epic as The Sword of Shannara follows the Lord of the Rings template very closely through the first half of its story and continues to borrow liberally all the way to the end of the book.  But then even Shakespeare was known to lift some ideas now and then, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Still, Terry Brooks is not the Bard, at least not at that point in his career and his first Shannara book definitely gives us his take on LoR, so be aware of that in advance when approaching this one.

But he did manage to throw in some original characters and ideas, or at least ones that were not lifted straight from Tolkien.  Menion Leah has no direct correlation in the LoR books that I can see and I liked the addition of the rogue Panamon Creel and his partner Keltset (who seem to invoke Han and Chewie, though this book preceded the first Star Wars movie).  The world that Brooks creates is also interesting in that it takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where humans have mutated into the fantasy character races that now dominate the planet.  That is unfortunately not explored too much in this book, but Brooks does some good world-building for his stories that will follow.

And quite a number of books in the series have hit the shelves since The Sword of Shannara with over twenty through 2015.  From what I understand, the second book—The Elfstones of Shannara—is where Brooks started to hit his stride with the series and I have that one currently in my audiobook queue.  I can’t tell you that Sword is a great book, but it was enjoyable enough and it did a good job of setting the groundwork for a much larger tale that has become well respected in fantasy literature.  It did drag at times, especially throughout the second half, but it never turned into a slogfest.  It’s worth reading for fantasy fans, if for no other reason than as an introduction to the world that Terry Brooks has built since then.  But I would definitely stop short of calling The Sword of Shannara a fantasy classic (though many people do consider it that).

As for the audiobook version, long time veteran Scott Brick provides the narration, though his talents do not seem as well-suited to this book.  I have listened to him many times reading classic works by science fiction authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke and his monotone fits quite well with those stories which tend to be somewhat dry.  But his vocals just didn’t seem to work as well in the fantasy setting.  Add to that the fact that the accents he would give to several of the characters tended to fade and I would count this as a subpar performance by the often reliable narrator.  I wouldn’t say that he distracted from the material, but he definitely wasn’t the best choice for this particular book, especially considering its rather lengthy 26 hour reading time.  This audiobook would be ripe for a new edition with someone like Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan (or Harlan Ellison) reading it.  But as it is, Scott Brick’s version is passable and a decent enough option to work your way through the first Shannara book.

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