The Sword Of Shannara Series

By Terry Brooks

Between Terry Goodkind and now Terry Brooks, I’ve really been plumbing the depths of “guys named Terry whose fantasy novels I read as a kid” lately. My most recent Terry-related experience was inspired by noticing the MTV(!?) show The Chronicles of Shannara, which somehow I had missed up to this point. As someone who read virtually everything Brooks published between like 1997-2002, I was curious to see what MTV (seriously, MTV!?) would make of his Shannara books. Spoiler alert: the show is truly awful. 

After watching the travesty of a TV show, I felt compelled to go back to the source literature to see if my fond memories of Shannara were justified. I can still vividly remember some of the books’ best scenes: the Home Guard’s Crispin standing against the Reaper, Allanon wrestling with the cackling Jachyra, the destruction of the Druid’s home at Paranor. Not bad staying power for books that I haven’t read for 15 years! In any case, I picked up The Wishsong of Shannara to refresh my memory (it was the first in the series that I could find on my shelves).

What’s the verdict? Well, it’s mixed. The good news is that the books are 1000% better than the hormone-filled dreck that is the MTV show (seriously Terry, couldn’t you get HBO to bite?). The bad news is that they’re definitely a bit amateurish, or at least Book 3 (published in 1985) was, so it’s possible they improved later in the series. Their main flaw, to my mind, is that Brooks is often guilty of violating the “show, don’t tell” writing maxim. Characters often give monologues about their innermost motivations, only to have other characters mentally recap the same information to the reader, which gets old fast. The reader is really never asked to do any work, instead, everything is spoon-fed, and characters are generally pretty 2-D.

So, in general, I was a little disappointing upon my re-reading. The good news is that I loved these books when I was in the 12-18 year old range (or so), just like I loved pretty much everything else Brooks wrote (The Word and the Void Series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover). With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and give this series the “young adult tag.” For younger readers who are mostly interested in a satisfying, linear story-line, Brooks’ books are still a great choice! For more mature readers, maybe not so much.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Running with the Demon, Split Infinity

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens That Made England

By Dan Jones

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: this is not technically a fantasy book (and it’s definitely not a sci-fi book). The Plantagenets is a history book, chronicling the era in which England was dominated by the Plantagenet family line (1154-1485). Nevertheless, I’m listing the book here, and will be filing the review under “fantasy” for ease of cataloging.

The reasons why I’m including this in the blog are that A) it’s an excellent book, and B) it basically reads like a fantasy adventure sans magic. Granted, the book does span over 300 years, but it includes a bevy of important figures and events that helped to inform ancient and modern mythologies: Richard the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades to confront his brother John (who, despite being best known as a nasty lion in the animated Robin Hood, went on to have a long and moderately successful kingship of his own); the ravages of the Black Death; The Hundred Years’ War with France; the rise and fall of Thomas Beckett; the creation of the Magna Carta; the sinking of the White Ship. The list goes on!

This was a time of incredible change and Jones does his best to give an even-handed account of the strengths and foibles of the monarchs, their families, their friends, and their foes. One of the things that I like about this extremely broad perspective is that it helps to make it clear just how arbitrary the course of history can be. It’s easy to look back and see things like the creation of the Magna Carta, or the expulsion of the English from France and think “well of course things turned out that way,” but Jones helps to show just how unexpected or unlikely these things really were.

In past reviews, I’ve commented on my preference for strong plot over strong prose, and this history of early England is basically nothing but plot. Jones’ writing is excellent, but it’s clear that his goal is to keep the story moving, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the book. I very much enjoyed it, and am looking forward to reading his subsequent book about the time period covering the War of the Roses (a time period which, incidentally, inspired significant portions of A Song of Ice and Fire).

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, The Last Kingdom

 

1/22/18 Blog Update

Hi Everyone,

When starting this blog, I initially adopted the following system for rating books:

1 – Skip it

2 – Guilty Pleasure

3 – Recommended with Reservations

4 – Highly Recommended

5- Mandatory Reading


Now that the blog is closing in on its one-year anniversary, I’ve realized that there was too much overlap between the categories of “guilty pleasure” and “recommended with reservations.”

As such, I’ve re-worked the rating system by removing the “guilty pleasure” category, and folding its previous entrants into the revised “recommended with reservations” category. The revised system is as follows:

1- Skip It

2- Recommended with Reservations

3 – Highly Recommended

4- Mandatory Reading

Thanks,

Sam

The Sword of Truth

By Terry Goodkind

Ah, “The Sword of Truth,” one of my first fantasy loves. I stumbled upon the series in 1995 or 1996, and can still keenly remember using one of my first Amazon gift cards to order the series’ opener: Wizard’s First Rule (though when I bought it, I imagined that the title referenced a “ruling” wizard, as opposed to “wizard rule #1”).

What followed was several years of matrimonial (bibliophilic?) bliss. Goodkind had created a dark, awesome world, and I became deeply attached to characters like Richard, Kahlan and Zedd. Wizard’s First Rule crackled with energy, and by the time I had inhaled books two and three (The Stone of Tears, Blood of the Fold), I would happily tell anyone who asked that The Sword of Truth was my favorite series. Goodkind has a knack for action, and the early books of the series were eminently readable (and re-readable, frankly). Like Brandon Sanderson, Goodkind also had a strong command of narrative climax, and the end of each novel could be depended on to be a rousing apex of excitement.

My love affair with SoT began to wane a bit around book five, Soul of the Fire. That was the first novel in the series to truly depart from Richard/Kahlan’s POV’s, and I thought the series was worse for the change, but was open to the idea that Goodkind was building up to something. It wasn’t until book six, Faith of the Fallen, that the truly radical nature of that change started to become apparent. There’s really no way to dance around what started happening in the series at that point: Goodkind began losing track of what had made the series so popular, and re-oriented the series as an increasingly obvious means of shilling for Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand (I know, that kind of came out of nowhere). That’s not to say that the series immediately went down the drain (I actually liked Faith of the Fallen quite a bit), but in hindsight, book six marked the clear transition from “fantasy epic” to “increasingly transparent morality tale.”

Even so many years after having read my last Goodkind (I did labor through the end of the series in 2011), it’s painful to reflect on how one of my favorite series went so far awry. I could see myself re-reading books one through six at one point, but I have absolutely no temptation to move beyond those. Richard’s transformation from a real person to a shallow Howard Roark knock-off was particularly hard to take. By the end of the series, I didn’t really care about any of the protagonists any longer- they had all become Objectivist assholes.

So how to sum up a such an inconsistent series? For the love which I once bore these books, I’m going to go ahead and list the series as “recommended with reservations.” The reservation, however, is that I don’t recommend reading beyond book six (unless you really enjoyed John Galt’s 100 page speech in Atlas Shrugged).

Rating: 2 – Recommend with (SIGNIFICANT) Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Riftwar Saga, The Apprentice Adept.

 

The Stormlight Archive

Update, 1/8/18: This post has been updated to include comments on books 2-3 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings

I’ll be totally honest: I have a bit of a man-crush on Brandon Sanderson.

I wrote about Sanderson briefly in my recap of the Wheel of Time books, as he was kind enough to step in and finish the series after Robert Jordan’s untimely death. For many writers, completing Jordan’s magnum opus would qualify as a “lifetime achievement,” but Sanderson seems intent on making it simply one more footnote in a prolific career.

Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005. In the years since, he’s published approximately one bajillion novels and short-stories (that’s my professional estimate), of which I’ve read virtually word. It’s always a treat to watch an author that you like blossom, and I’ve had a front row seat for Sanderson’s development. His early works like Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy were entertaining but raw. The character development could be a little scant, and while the magic system in Mistborn was intriguing, it was set up in such a way that the “pushing” and “pulling” (these are magical terms) in each combat scenario got old fast. And while there is definitely violence and tension in Sanderson’s work, his work can trend towards the “young adult” end of the spectrum, which is often a non-started for me. There’s rarely any sex (I’m guessing this is due to him being Mormon?), and in general you can depend on the bad guys being transparently evil, and the good guys snatching victory from defeat at the last moment.

But where Sanderson shines, and I mean really, really shines, is in his plotting. It’s very clear that before he gets to work on any given novel, he’s sketched out the plot in significant detail, such that readers can count on being guided to a satisfying, climactic ending. No matter which Sanderson work you’re reading, you can be pretty confident that at around 80% of the way through the book, you will feel compelled to take a break from everything else in your life and finish reading. This includes pausing your body’s biology for as long as it takes.

Now, on to The Way of Kings. This is the first of 10 entries into the “Stormlight Archive,” and it’s clear that Sanderson’s early works were basically a trial run for this, his own magnum opus. Here, he’s marshaled all of his considerable talents, and if your taste runs anything like mine, you’ll quickly be absorbed by the stories of Kaladin the slave, Brightlord Dalinar, and the scholar Shallan. Despite being the first book in a series, the novel is satisfying in its own right, and we get the kind of adrenaline pumping denouement that Sanderson has become famous for.

It’s tough for me to offer objective criticism for this book. I’m sure there are nits that could be picked, but this is the kind of story that reduces me to being a total fanboy. I eagerly await future entries into the series.

So, to sum up: do you like fantasy? If so, read this book. Period.

You’re welcome!

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Mistborn, The Black Prism


Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.

Words of Radiance

Sanderson has done it again! Words of Radiance is a worthy successor to The Way of Kings, simultaneously delivering an installment of his compelling saga, while setting the stage for future books (all eight of them!). It’s clear that Sanderson has a long-term vision for the series, which helps me as a reader to really invest myself in the story. Much like Robert Jordan before him, Sanderson does an excellent job of slowing pulling back the curtain on the world, while leaving tantalizing hints of foreshadowing and prophecy to keep us guessing (I wonder how finishing the Wheel of Time may have affected Sanderson’s approach to writing Stormlight?).

Words of Radiance is a truly massive tome (1300 pages), but it never felt drawn out to me. Part of Sanderson’s strategy (I think) is to make sure that each significant character has some sort of internal tension or mystery to them, so that when our POV switches to a different character, there’s almost always some sort of payoff involved for the reader. As The Way of Kings focused on slowly revealing Kaladin’s backstory, Words of Radiance focuses on Shallan, who really comes into her own as a character over the course of the book.

Like all Sanderson books, the book concludes with a frenetic rush of action and reveals, which leads to appropriately awesome moments for the reader. A friend pointed out to me the other day that this type of predictably awesome ending has become known as the “Sanderson Avalanche,” and therefore I will be referring to it as such in future blog posts.

With that in mind, I’ll be leaving the series review above unchanged: this is mandatory reading.


Oathbringer

In preparation for reading Oathbringer, I went back and re-read books one and two of the series, which coupled with reading book three, made for a very satisfying month of living in Sanderson-land. I realize there’s a temptation to just re-read plot synopses of past books before jumping into new material, but with a series this good, I’d prefer to marinate myself in it for as long as possible.

With that said, I do have to admit that I didn’t think Oathbringer quite measured up to books one and two, though that’s admittedly a very high bar. I was surprised to look back and realize that Oathbringer was actually shorter that Words of Radiance, as it felt considerably longer. There comes a point in the book where I seriously thought I might be nearing the end (reading on a Kindle, and not looking at the page count), only to find that I had another two-fifths of the book left. Now, as a lover of both epic fantasy and the Stormlight Archive, I’m not going to turn down any extra content, but I did think the flow of the book was not quite as natural as that of the previous novels.

Oathbringer is also a bit of a challenge insofar as our protagonists are going through some pretty challenging times in the story, which (I think) makes it a little more difficult to zip along through the book. At almost any given time during the book, either Dalinar, Shallan or Kaladin is having a crisis of faith (or something equivalent), and despite the fact that all of their suffering seems genuinely earned, it can be difficult to not want to grab hold of them and yell things like “JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND INHALE THAT STORMLIGHT, DAMMIT!”

With all that said, have I changed my mind at all about the series itself? Not a bit. This is still the series I’m most excited about (though GRRM may have something to say about that if The Winds of Winter ever comes out). I eagerly await book four, as well as whatever side project Sanderson cooks up in the meantime…

December Hiatus

Hi Everyone,

I’ll be taking a short break from blog updates over the next few weeks, as I’ll be happily re-reading Brandon Sanderson’s initial two Stormlight volumes, and then finally launching into the recently published third book, Oathbringer.

Sure, I COULD just read a quick recap, but I’d rather draw out the process and derive as much enjoyment as possible. Still, that’s 3300+ pages, so even reading like it’s my job, it will be a few weeks before I emerge on the other end.

So please enjoy your December, and I’ll be back in a few weeks with reviews of Words of Radiance and Oathbringer!

-Sam

His Dark Materials

By Phillip Pullman

In my most recent post, I reviewed Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust, which returns us the the world (universe? multi-verse?) of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. That in turn caused me to detour from my previously scheduled reading list in order to plow through the original trilogy once more (and detouring was particularly difficult, because Brandon Sanderson’s latest epic just came out!).

Consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the His Dark Materials trilogy was published between 1995 and 2000, and it is a difficult series to describe. On one hand, it definitely spills over into the “young adult” genre (Amazon pegs it as being for those “10 and up”). On the other hand, this is a series just teeming with adult themes (the innocence of children, the fall of man, original sin, a corrupt church, etc.). This is no sugar-laden lullaby of a fantasy story, but rather a thoughtful, cynical adventure that mixes religion, science and morality into potent brew. I admit I had forgotten just how “out there” the story eventually gets; how many children’s stories have you read lately that feature a knife that may or may not be able to kill God? Probably not many.

Part of Pullman’s charm is that he’s able to pull the reader along through a narrative that could easily seem clunky in another author’s hand’s. There must have been ample temptation to over-explain as he painted an increasingly complex story, but instead he’s able to use an almost minimalist style to just add enough detail to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, while keeping his focus on our child protagonists, Lyra and Will. Ultimately, this is a universe (multi-verse, I guess) in which magical, unexplainable things happen, and Pullman asks us to just take that on faith (which is ironic, I guess, given the content of the story). I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, this is a trilogy that straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, both in terms of the reading level, and of the story itself. So while I don’t recommend that anyone run out and buy The Golden Compass for their ten year-old, this is a perfect series for an adventure loving teenager with a slightly cynical bent (or for an adventure loving adult with a slightly cynical bent, for that matter). Still not sold? Well did I mention that there are fighting armored bears with opposable thumbs?

If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Book of Dust, The Witches.