Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Return of the Summer of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CL

Last year's "summer of Shannara" went well and I thought I would continue it this summer by going through the Heritage of Shannara series.  I started book I, The Scions of Shannara, the day school let out and I've reached chapter 10.  As with last year, my goal is to blog my way through all four books of the series giving my reactions as I go.  Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.

The Heritage Series begins three-hundred years after the death of Allanon and the disappearance of Paranor, the druid castle, from the Four Lands.  The first book of the series, The Scions of Shannara, opens well with familiar character Cogline meeting at night with the shade of Allanon to discuss the future of the Four Lands.  Cogline, against his will, is sent by the shade to find the three surviving members of the house of Shannara that still carry the old magic: Par, Wren, and Walker.  This first book of the series is really Par's, and we spend much of the rest of it seeing things from his pov (or more accurately, that of an omniscient camera man standing over his shoulder).  Thus far, Par and his brother have been ejected from the city of Varfleet for using magic (and met chief bad-guy Rimmer Dall and future good-guy as-yet-unnamed in the process), met Cogline and received a summons to the Hadeshorn, then hooked up with Menion Leah (that pernicious habit), traveled to Culhaven to look for Walker, found Walker at the old Boh homestead and found out that he wants nothing to do with them.  Along the way, they have had mysterious encounters with creatures known as Shadowen.  These creatures threaten to destroy the Four Lands, though their exact nature is as yet uncertain.  Oh, and the Federation from the last two books has swollen into a huge and fascistic empire of Lucasian proportions.

My immediate impression of the first chapter was that Brooks' style and tone have improved remarkably since The Wishsong of Shannara.  I have also been impressed in these first ten chapters with Brooks' use of material from the original series to give this new tale a sense of depth and "rootedness."  Unlike the first series, I feel as though the characters are inhabiting a real and meaningful world as opposed to a collection of cliched locations pulled from various adventure novels.  Brooks didn't set out to write a "deep," Tolkien-esque world, but he has begun to write himself into one and it's better for his art.

That said, The Scions of Shannara still has a strong pulp feel with the introduction of "forced" confrontations and elements that serve merely to keep the story running as opposed to emerging organically from the logic of the work (The two encounters with the Shadowen, Gnawl, and Spider Gnomes in particular).  There's nothing wrong with pulp, but Brooks doesn't allow the necessary "wink-at-the-camera" that you see in Burroughs and that gets the reader through the forced and goofy elements.  To put it another way: the first books were "Hardy Boys meets Tolkien," and this book seems to be "The Hardy Boys get in a fist-fight with Tolkien."  Tolkien has a ton of pulp elements in his The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (take a look at all the stuff he lifts from H. R. Haggard's She), so a mediation between pulp and high fantasy isn't impossible, it just takes a deft literary hand to pull it off.  Backing up a little, I think this disjoint stems from the fact that Brooks excels at creating monsters and describing fights, but struggles with character development and conversations.  Thus, whenever the plot begins to call for these, he makes sure to interrupt with random-creature-from-the-abyss-number-fifty-seven.  It hides (or cuts short) his short-comings and keeps the plot moving.

Now back to praising Brooks.  One thing Brooks excels at, aside from creating monsters and describing fights, is short, swift, character sketches.  So far, all the "red shirts" we saw in The Elfstones of Shannara are gone.  Each character, no matter how briefly seen, has a personality; even the offstage innkeeper that Par and Col work for at the beginning of the novel.  This lends the book a greater believability and adds to the overall interest.

That's all for now.  I'll post again after the next chunk.

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