This post will cover chapters IV and V of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara. Those who wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
77 pages and no monster battles. That's quite an achievement for Terry Brooks. In the past, fights, horrors, and daring do have been his stock-in-trade for keeping the reader reading. Perhaps that seems like a backhanded way to start, but I think it works out to a genuine compliment. First King of Shannara is shaping up to be Brooks' most polished book out of the eight I have read. That's been Brooks' M.O. throughout: always moving his craft foreword. That said, let's cut over to a plot summary and a few more observations.
Chapter IV introduces us to the new character Mareth, a druid apprentice who wishes to study directly under Bremen. She also appears to be the token female on this adventure. The hemming and hawing about taking her along is pretty flat, but once the company (Tay-elf-shooter, Risca-dwarf-tank, Mareth-human-healer-possible love interest, Kinson-human-ranger-possible stud muffin, and Bremen-Gandalf-GM stick) gets going, her character begins to work. They way Brooks manages it is by focusing on the tension between her seeming vulnerability and stern druidic presence. This particular angle obeys the unities inherent in the story and has the chance of creating at least a credible character (one who Bremen wouldn't be crazy to take along and who plays a believable role within the group). While not exactly great literature, this is an improvement over earlier supporting ladies Maddie Roh and Damson Rhee.
Chapter V features the inevitable visit to the Hadeshorn to collect information. Brooks takes advantage of the fact that this is the "first" visit to the Hadeshorn to imbue the trope with an added interest that makes for a compelling and decidedly non-cliched scene. We gain a little more insight into what exactly goes on when one summons the shades of the ancient druids. Bremen continues to be a much more approachable figure than Allanon, and so it seems quite natural for him to reveal information that has hitherto been hidden from the readership. Furthermore, Brooks deftly uses the scene to continue to impress upon us that Bremen is willing to do anything to stop the Warlock Lord. Already, we begin to understand at a deeper level why Bremen will eventually chain his spirit to the Hadeshorn for hundreds of years and why Allanon is the man who continues to grab for "all or nothing." These kinds of insights are the bread and butter of prequels, the kind of thing that was often lacking in Episodes I-III of Star Wars. Finally, the author makes an interesting decision in splitting his newly formed company in three. Given the relative flatness of Tay and Risca so far, this may be a good thing for their character development. It also creates the diversity of plot threads needed for an epic-scale fantasy novel. On the downside, unlike Scions of Shannara, we haven't spent enough time with any of the characters besides Bremen and Kinson for their individual stories to be of any real interest to us. We want to know about the Black Elfstone, not Tay's specific fate. We want to know about the battle between the dwarfs and the trolls, not anything in particular that Risca will contribute to it.
So, there you have it. The book is only just starting, so we'll see where Brooks goes with it and if he ends up capitalizing on his early successes and mitigates his mis-steps or flubs it when the plot really gets under way.