Warning: spoilers ahead.
When I was a child, I was enamored with my parents’ bookshelves. At least, if their covers were any indication. However, many of those books were old and brittle and, in my young hands, probably would have been destroyed seven times over. So I’ve never read most of them.
As I recall, it was my mother’s fantasy books that most caught my eye. In seventh grade, I began by reading The Hobbit (borrowed from the local library, of course). This, naturally, lead to The Lord of the Rings. But there was a series of books I wondered about more than them. A trio of big, worn, black paperbacks that dominated the shelf. Their font was evocative, their covers imaginative.
The Sword of Shannara
The Elfstones of Shannara
The Wishsong of Shannara
Next to them, The First King of Shannara, The Scions, The Druid, The Elf Queen, The Talismans.
What were these books? What was this Shannara? Fresh off of Tolkien, I delved into this new land.
In a weird way, had I not just come out of The Lord of the Rings, I might have noticed more easily how Terry Brooks did a soft rewrite of the trilogy in The Sword of Shannara. I might have noticed how familiar the scenarios were, how similar the characters were, how obviously ripped off the quest was. But I didn’t. I loved it. And when The Elfstones of Shannara diverged so completely from its formulaic predecessor, I was hooked.
I’ve read every book in the Shannara saga, from the Word & Void trilogy (confirming long-held suspicions I had about the universe), to the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, and now to The Defenders of Shannara trilogy.
And it pains me to say how disappointed I am in this most recent set.
Brooks’ writings were always grim compared to Tolkien. The protagonists often suffered severe setbacks, and without fail, some would die. Darkness was always present and often stuck closer, due to Brooks’ more contemporary writing style. You were always emotionally close to those who were suffering. The Defenders books aren’t much different, but something was missing. The preceding trilogy, The Dark Legacy, had hints of this, but it became very apparent this time around.
First, the minor details. The writing in this trilogy feels very lazy. Information is very frequently repeated. Plot and character points get drawn out over very long stretches for no particularly good reason. Very frequently, the reader is simply told how a character is impacted by events (for the rest of their life!) rather than having an action or a conversation convey it.
Because nothing says “life-changing event” like being explicitly told someone has just endured a life-changing event.
Then there’s the matter of the characters. In almost every series (with maybe the exception of the Legends duology), there’s a character I connect with. A character I care about. A character I want to see surmount the odds and succeed. Most of the time, there’s more than one. Not this time. I found I couldn’t connect with any characters. Paxon Leah is bland, and spends half his trilogy feeling more like a background character than the main focus. Leofur Rai is much the same, feeling like a Mary Sue with daddy issues, rather than a well-written character with daddy issues. Almost none of the secondary cast get particularly fleshed out either, often appearing (and then dying) in the same book.
The only character who feels particularly fleshed out is the villain, the unimaginatively named Arcannen (did he give himself that name or were his parents really weird?). And even then he is unconvincing. He feels like such a small man, with excessively big ambitions. If you took Jabba the Hutt, gave him Jedi powers, connections in the Republic government, a desire to take control of the Jedi, and put him in charge of whorehouse (full of unwilling slaves), that’s Arcannen. He never feels big, powerful, or important, except in his own mind; this makes his villainy boring and cartoonish.
None of the character arcs (what few there were) come to a satisfying conclusion either. I won’t spoil any of these details, but I came away feeling ultimately disheartened and even a little hollowed out. There are too many bad happenings and very little to lift the reader up in the end. Everything may not be awful at the conclusion, but there’s no real triumph. There’s no real bright point to feel like all the struggling was worth it.
Which brings me to the plot: go back and read the paragraph on Arcannen.
He is the primary mover of the entire trilogy. And I’m never drawn in, never convinced he’s a real threat. A nuisance, no doubt, but it feels like he’s only so dangerous because the plot demands he must be. In general, the plot just meanders about, never really going anywhere…at least nowhere that warrants such a lofty title as “The Defenders of Shannara.”
And finally there’s the matter of the gay subplot…because of course there is. And, as with most gay subplots, it adds very little to the story except to stick out really obviously. Indeed, it only exists in the third book, with characters only introduced in the third book. So there’s no build-up, no attachment. They’re just there and the reader seems to simply be expected to empathize just because. No effort is made to make the relationship relatable. It is, technically, plot-relevant, but it sucks a lot of the energy out of Paxon’s journey, a journey which already lacked energy.
I’m reminded of the show Person of Interest, which did something similar. The damaged and mildly unhinged Root flirts with the cold, unfeeling Shaw for an entire season before it ends with a lesbian kiss and Shaw’s capture. The problem is that this element adds nothing to the show. We’re supposed to care about it just because, not because it’s convincing or enamoring. Indeed, the relationship causes both characters to act completely out of character when it comes up.
While it’s no secret I’m no fan of this sort of thing, I’m also willing to accept that it exists as long as it serves the story. My mother is much the same way, yet amusingly, came up with the best solution to the PoI dilemma. It’s already established that Shaw has a personality disorder that prevents her from empathizing with others (though this is, on some level, her deeply suppressing her emotions so she doesn’t feel pain). To have her reciprocate Root while remaining basically the same otherwise, was completely out of character and confusing. Rather, what should have happened is that Root’s affection should have gone unrequited until she ultimately ends up dying towards the end of the series. Create a scenario where Shaw is forced to confront her conflicting/repressed feelings, a trauma on the level of what made her the way she was to begin with.
We already care about the characters. Now make me care about how you’re shipping them.
In Defenders, I don’t even care about the characters, so why would I care about how you’re shipping them?
In the end, I’m disappointed. Defenders of Shannara was perhaps the weakest entry in the saga. Almost every series (with the notable exception of Word & Void) has a central quest, or several concurrent ones. There are always compelling characters working together toward a common, positive goal, even when separated from each other by the entire length of the Four Lands. Defenders has none of that. It’s aimless and meandering, leaving the reader feeling like more has been lost than has been gained. My hope is the coming Fall of Shannara (I already have the first book) is a step up again, a return to some of what made Shannara great…even with the promise of the end.