Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blogging Through Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CI

Thoughts come pouring in so fast sometimes that they're almost impossible to gather.  In the interest, then,of capturing some of them before they depart and are lost forever, I've decided to blog on Terry Brooks' "The Elfstones of Shannara" as I read.  Currently, I'm on page 156 out of 564.  Let me back up a little, however and explain a bit more about my relationship to the world of Shannara.

I haven't read the Shannara series since I was thirteen or fourteen.  I had finished all of Tolkien I could get my hands on and found myself hungry for more.  At that time, once people heard you were reading Tolkien, they always asked if you had read the Shannara books.  I picked up the series and devoured it being too young to notice or care that "The Sword of Shannara" is point for point rip-off of "The Lord of the Rings."  I read straight through to "The Talismans of Shannara" and then re-read again and again in a short span of time.  After that, I moved on and didn't pick up anything by Terry Brooks until college.  At that time, I was reading my way through various authors' first books to get an idea for the tell-tale characteristics of a first novel.  I read "The Sword of Shannara" on the plane back from Oxford.  I don't recall being very impressed.  From what I hear, Terry Brooks isn't very impressed with it either.  He did write it when he was just a college student after all.  Half my college fictional writing (much to my dismay) is just a badly-remembered rip-off of Brooks.  Anyhow, I found a number of the books on sale for a dollar at the local used book store, so I thought it was time to give him another chance.  With that bit of background, let's move on.

Picking up "The Elfstones of Shannara," I was immediately attracted to the artwork.  The pictures done by the brothers Hildebrant for the first book were even better, but the dignified style of Darrell K. Sweet adds an extra layer of enchantment to the work.  I wish more books, particularly fantasies, were illustrated these days.  Maybe that's just my ignorance talking.

After that good start, however, I have to admit that I wasn't particularly interested in the story until page 52.  The narrative is a bit clunky and the characters are flat and uninteresting.  His elves, and this is a criticism I'd apply to all his races, don't feel one wit different from ordinary American humans.  I know there's plenty of back-story reason for that, but it doesn't make for a very compelling read.  Part of the charm of a fantasy novel is letting the other races exemplify certain human traits carried out far beyond what is currently possible.  Multiply races without giving them individual characteristics that pop and sizzle seems like an impotent use of creativity.  Just so you know that I'm not picking on Brooks here, I'd say that E.R. Eddison has the same problem in his "The Worm Ouroboros."

Moving on to what caught my attention around page 52, it was the appearance of Allanon.  Brooks clearly likes his crankier version of Gandalf and has his character pretty well worked out.  Suddenly, the pace picks up and the narration becomes enchanting.  We sense there is actual depth here without having to take the author's word for it.  Brooks also is a capable and energetic narrator of fight scenes and the battle between Allanon and the Furies had me quickly turning pages.  The writing finally kicked up to the notch where I could imagine the Dagda Mor as scary.

The action slows down again when Allanon comes to Storlock.  He does a good job of making you fell the wet.  Somehow, all of Brooks' villages feel like a American summer camp.  Maybe that's just my mental baggage.  It's nice to see Flick again, and he seems to have a creditable psychology.  Allanon's narrations are always fun, but his attempt to convince Wil to join him, and his later attempt to convince Amberle, come off a bit clunky.  Brooks excels at creating an immediate sense of urgency when bad guys show up, but he's having a hard time so far selling the overall sense of impending Armageddon.

Wil's journey with Allanon to find Amberle reveals Wil to be a character with weight and depth appropriate to his age, family history, and current occupation.  His ability to be circumspect at times is much appreciated.  Brooks is careful to always give us hints as to why Allanon is such a nasty crank.  There's some real pathos when he loses himself in thought about the annihilation of the druids and his own solitude.

Amberle is a bit of an immature brat.  It would help if we were reminded a bit more that this is because she is a spoiled princess.  Her Hippie sermonizing about the Earth seems to be Brooks' attempt at a deeper "applicability" for his story.  I love nature and observe most of the appropriate taboos for a man of my age, class, and station, but I'm really not buying into it here.  The chase scene with the demon wolves as Wil, Amberle, and Allanon are forced to flee the village is well-written.  The appearance of The King of the Silver River is weighty and well-done having a definite flavor of myth.  It also sets us up for the events of "The Druid of Shannara" a few books later.  Amberle becomes a bit more likable once the Rovers appear and we have a chance to see her get jealous.

The whole episode with the Rovers is enchanting.  Here, Brooks seems to have been able to do a little real sub-creating in imagining this gypsy-like community.  The prose he uses to describe their camp life is rich and fluid.  Did anyone else notice that Cephelo sounds like the Ancient Greek word for "head" and that Eretria is a place in Ancient Greece?  Eretria is another of those forceful, sexually frank, women that people fantasies and science fiction.  Sometimes it make me wonder if geek guys are just looking for men with long hair and a figure when they think about a suitable mate.  At least there are no chain-mail bikinis.  Brooks artfully deploys this worn-out stereotype, however, by situating her within the context of Rover culture and allowing us to make the inference that she's playing up her feminine whiles in order to get away.  We also now have the classic "good girl vs. bad girl" cliche present that will require the death, marriage, or nun-ifying of one of them so that Wil does not have to make an actual choice.  This shouldn't be a problem so long as Brooks plays his authorial cards right.  He's been hinting that something unpleasant awaits Amberle from the beginning so that he can get rid of her without it seeming arbitrary or inorganic.  Good job there!

Well that takes you as far as I've gotten.  Overall, I'm beginning to really enjoy the book at this point.  It's not Tolkien, Lewis, Eddison, or Dunsany(the British titans), but it isn't trying to be.  It's not a work of sword and sorcery like Robert E. Howard or Fritz Lieber either (very American authors working in a very American genre).  I think Brooks' genius may be in turning fantasy from epic and pseudo-historical fiction into light reading.  It's like Tolkien-light, and I'm perfectly ok with that.  Anyhow, we'll see how it goes.


Jessica said...

James, I'm intrigued by your survey of first novels. Have you come to any conclusions about their pit-traps?

James said...

Hmm. That was a while ago and I've read Donald Maas since. Let me see If I can remember.

1. A tendency toward strictly linear narration. You can see this is the strait-forward single narrative of the "Hobbit" verses the much more complex narratives of "The Lord of the Rings." The Hobbit tells one story sequentially from one perspective with one authorial voice. "The Lord of the Rings" interlaces several narrative threads, moves forward and backward in time, and changes voice depending on what source material the passage is supposed to be drawn from.

2. A tendency toward pastiche or mere copying. You can see this with Terry Brooks' "The Sword of Shannara." It follows "The Lord of the Rings" with only minor deviations plot point for plot point and character for character. Tom Shippey spells this all out rather nicely in his "J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century."

3. A tendency toward inartful and clunky mechanics. I remember reading David Gemmel's first Druss book and watching him ram-rod the characters wherever he needed them to be. The author knows what needs to happen and simply forces the characters to do it by any means necessary.

On the other hand, sometimes the first novel is a work of genius that the author can never quite reproduce. I enjoy both the Earthsea Cycle and the Dune Series, but I think the first works in each case are distinctly superior to what fallows (even though I do really like "The Tombs of Atuan" and "Dune Messiah").

THose are my thoughts so far at least. Anything you would add? This is a question that interests me.

Jessica said...

Wow! That's a very thoughtful list.

RE: #1: I wonder how much of this is first-time syndrome, and how much of it is changing literary conditions? I mean, that might not be true for Tolkien, but I think there has been a shift towards multi-viewpoint novels recently. Old-school romances, for instance, were often only from the POV of the heroine, but now romances almost always split the POV between hero and heroine.

#2 makes a lot of sense. I think most of us learn how to write by imitating a favorite storyteller. That one can almost make reading the first novel more enjoyable, I think, if you also like the author your current author is paying homage to.

Yes, to #3 as well.

And yes on the unnumbered #4 . . . I've enjoyed several of Robin McKinley's subsequent novels, but never any as much as "Beauty". I've noticed that in a few other authors as well. (And I bet it's frustrating for them when they hear people say that kind of thing.)

I don't know if I have anything to add, except perhaps on the last point: I wonder about what causes the unrepeatably good first novel. I have two theories:

1) It's a book that the author wrote, as Stephen King would say, "with the door closed". In other words, it was written for the author's own pleasure, without the very present consciousness of an audience that being published would bring. That could give a lot of freedom to the narrative, because you wouldn't be worried about what your readers (or critics) might think; at that point, it's an open question as to whether or not you're ever going to HAVE any readers.

or, 2) It's because that's your one real story. It's the story you've always been obsessed with, always wanted to write, have spent years honing and refining and playing out in your mind. Nothing after that's ever going to match its depth, because nothing after that is ever going to be formed in the same way.

btw, I sincerely hope your interest in first novels is going to have some practical application. I want a James Harrington on my bookshelf someday!

James said...

I'm glad the list shakes out well. I'm sure there's more that could be added.

As to point 1, I remember taking a writing class at Biola and being strictly warned against this kind of narration. I guess Stephanie Meyer is the queen of Schadenfreude on that point... Anyhow, I think when first-timers adopt it these days, it's a often because, like myself, they aren't able to weave together the multiple threads that modern story-telling often demands. I want to clarify that I don't think single pov is a bad thing, but it is often a sign in contemporary writing of a novice who hasn't mastered the craft. Personally, I do like single pov books better than the unrestrained "let's unscrew everyone's head and putter around in their minds psychological (un)realism" of many contemporary novels. Brooks, for instance, over-corrects and has too many povs in Elfstones. On the other hand, for elite writing, single pov seems to have made a bit of a renaissance in authors like Marilyn Robinson and Wendell Barry. Maybe I'm misunderstanding the trend?

My wife agrees with you about Robin McKinley.

I like your thoughts on why first novels can sometimes be the author's best. I think that the expectation of series-writing has ruined some otherwise gifted writers. I think most writers have only one, maybe two or three at most, books in them. Tolkien was able to get away with that because his publisher recognized he was an unparalleled genius and that it was worth publishing "The Lord of the Rings" even if they took it as a loss. Anyhow... That'll get me started ranting about vanishing mid-lists and mass-marketed crap, so I better quit while I'm ahead. I've been reading too much Sayers.

In answer to your final question, yes, my research has to do with my own literary pretensions. Likewise, I hear that you're slogging away at your own masterpiece. Here's to making room on the shelf for the Biola crew! How do you feel about going between Sayers and Lewis? Or would you prefer the shelf with Sanders, Spears, and Reynolds?