Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Final Thoughts on the Scions of Shannara: The Platypus Reads Part CLIX

This review of Terry Brooks' The Scions of Shannara will take us up to the end of the book.  I intend to continue these reviews with the next book in the series The Druid of Shannara.

*Spoiler Alert*

I want to start with plot structure because it is such a fundamental test of an author's ability.  Watching Brooks grow as a writer over more than a decade reveals just how much work the man was willing to put into his craft and how much he was able to grow through practice, guidance, and determination.  Great writers may be born, but good writers can certainly be made.  If they choose to write light fiction for entertainment, that's their choice.  Anyhow, I think it's only fit to start out this final review of The Scions of Shannara by saying that it reaches a new level.  No longer is Brooks writing "Hardy Boys meets Tolkien," this novel stands, modestly, on its own two legs.  So, that said, let's talk plot structure.

In the end, we move from a story of three threads to a story of five (Par/Coll/Damson, Wren, Walker, Padishar/Morgan, Cogline).  All are interlaced with skill in a way that brings the first volume of the Heritage Series to a masterful and satisfying conclusion.  I might quibble that Wren's screen time is a bit arbitrary and seems only to be there to keep her at the front of the reader's mind, but there's nothing in the episode or the way Brooks interlaces it to gripe about.  The nice symmetry of beginning and ending with Cogline should atone for any minor deficiencies anyway.  Just comparing this with the two interlacing plots of the previous novel, The Wishsong of Shannara, should demonstrate how much Terry Brooks has grown as a writer.

Moving from plot structure to the crafting of individual episodes, I am again very much satisfied with the book.  The fall of the Jut is well handled with an ending that strikes a good balance: there's still hope, but winning will be much harder, and much more costly, than we first were led to believe.  The betrayal of Teel is allowed to be predictable from the first, a more advanced story-telling choice, and tension instead derives from wondering if the characters will put two and two together in time.  This also allows some real character growth for Morgan and keeps him from being a redundant character (a real danger for a time in the middle of the novel).  While I believe the Jut to be the best-crafted of the threads in the end, I do have to praise the way Brooks uses Walker Boh relatively static and unopposed journey as a foil for the more outwardly strenuous efforts of the other characters.  Par and Coll may not interest me as much, and I may still hold that Damson is an ill fit, but their story works quite well on the level of adventure and the conversation with Rimmer Dall is a wonderful twist.

Considering characters, I think Rimmer Dall needs to take pride of place.  All along, Brooks has had a love of monsters that can only be rivaled by Frank Peretti.  Indeed, like Peretti, he seems also to have figured out that demons make some of the best monsters.  This means that we've never really had much of a compelling villain before, just big scary monsters and mysterious boss-monsters.  First Seeker Rimmer Dall, however, is a new thing; a monster who wants to rationally propound why he is not a monster.  Now, of course, Dall is mostly lying, so that can't put him on a level with the Operative from Serenity, but it's a genuine development and sign of growth as an author.  Real villains don't think that they're villains.  As William DeFoe said in an interview when asked what the difference was between portraying heroes and villains on screen: "No difference: everyone thinks their righteous."  Brooks effort to have a more complex psychology for his foes raises the level of his world.  Next in line comes Padishar Creel who wins the "Best Supporting Character" award.  He's some sort of weird cross between Erol Flynn and Clint Eastwood, but it works.  He's also a much needed mentor figure for our particularly young ensemble.  Speaking of mentors, I've also been impressed with the metamorphosis of Cogline from throw-away character flesh and blood.  Though he doesn't get much screen time, he is the thread that holds The Scions of Shannara together.  If he believes that the shade of Allanon is real, we believe it, if he believes that the shad is manipulative and holding something back, we believe it, if he believes that the Shannara children should still take up the quest, we believe it, and if he assures us that the Shannara children can survive in the end, we believe it.  All of this should bring up the question: "what about the main characters?"  They're ok, and they can hold some weight, but they haven't grown enough yet to do so without a strong supporting cast.  Maybe that's ok for the opening novel.  Presumably, they'll grow over the next three volumes.  The real master-stroke would have been to leave them room for growth while still making them interesting enough to hold our attention un-aided, but Brooks still gets us through and keeps our interest.

So what's my final estimation?  I really admire Terry Brooks' dedication to his craft and I love watching how far he's able to come.  Given the level of quality he's been able to achieve in The Scions of Shannara, I might suggest that anyone interested in the series start there and skip the first three books as background material.  Now, would I recommend the series?  That's a problem.  There's so much else out there that's worth reading.  However, recommending the Heritage Series is on a level with recommending Tom Clancy or Michael Chriton.  Do you want an airport book?  There are a couple of nagging reservations as well.  I still am a bit disturbed by the Shadowen on Toffer Ridge and the Mole.  I don't know if I want to recommend an author that treats things like demon possession, undertones of rape, and psychosis, as matters for light fiction.  Some things shouldn't be toyed with just to flavor an episode (I might add vivid descriptions of violence as well).  Maybe those are just things that caught me wrong.  I'm open to dialog.  Anyhow, take that for what it's worth.  I've already begun The Druid of Shannara and will begin posting about it a.s.a.p.  Thanks to any of you have been reading this.  I hope there have been gems in all this stream-of-consciousness that have been worth your time.  Best wishes all!           

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