This post will cover chapters XIX through XXII of Terry Brooks' First King of Shannara. Those who have not read the book and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
Chapter XIX brings us back to Risca and the dwarves' attempts to delay the army of the Warlock Lord. This chapter is "merely competent" in execution and might serve as a symbol of much of the book. The fight scenes are well-narrated in simple, readable language. The pace is fast without sacrificing coherence. The problem is that it's all generic material that we've seen dozens of times before. Raybur, Risca, and company are as soul-less and cardboard as the enemy hordes they face. The setting and the action itself also fail to be evocative enough to supply what the characters lack. The chapter, like so much of the book, is "merely competent" lacking the necessary flair to capture the imagination.
Chapter XX fairs little better than chapter XIX as we turn back to the elves and their crippled kingship. Jerle is a defined character, but he isn't particularly likable. Preia is too objectified by the narrator to be quite real and Vree Erreden is only interesting enough to pull his own weight. In addition, Brooks' monarchs are entirely too democratic to entrance us with the pomp of royalty. This chapter could have been saved (like Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) by less stilted romance and more sweeping political pageantry. The figure whose name dominates the entire cycle is about to be crowned king!
After finishing the previous two chapters I was seriously considering writing the book off as a failure. Chapters XI and XII saved the day. Dechtera, future capital of the Federation, pops to life in the first paragraph. Instantly, we're back in the kind of imaginative setting that has always fueled the series. My mind started to go back to the fantastic industrial landscapes of Final Fantasy VI and VII. In short, I was ready to read again. That readiness was repaid as Brooks carefully deploys his most developed characters (Bremen, Kinson, and Mareth) and returns to the main quest: forging the sword of Shannara. This combination of setting and characters turns two rather static chapters into interesting reading. Brooks actually makes Kinson's little trip to the sword shop work! Mareth and Bremen are established enough that finally finding out why the one has sought out the other engages and satisfies. Bremen as both teacher and grandfather figure charts his own territory: neither Allanon or Gandalf. Mareth, the teenager who wants to find herself, should be a tired old trope, but Brooks has put enough time into developing her that she complements Bremen and enhances his character while also growing and developing on her own.
So there you have it. I'm re-invigorated and ready for Chapter XXIII which should get us down to the sticky business of actually forging that magical sword.