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

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.

 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Book One)

By Philip Pullman

It feels strange to be reviewing Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage immediately on the heels of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, because the two works could not be more dissimilar (at least not while remaining within the fantasy genre). But after the creeping darkness of Lawrence’s work, returning to the world of The Golden Compass comes with a sweet sense of homecoming.

For those readers unfamiliar with Phillip Pullman, he broke out in 1995 with the publication of The Golden Compass (also known as “Northern Lights” in the UK). Along with its sequels The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the books composed the His Dark Materials trilogy, which were childhood favorites of mine (and, I’m sure, of many others). The original trilogy cataloged the adventures of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, not to mention some badass panserbjorn (armored bears!). If your only exposure to Pullman’s original trilogy was the 2007 movie version of The Golden Compass, then I beseech you to forget what you’ve seen and just give the books a try. In any case, I’ll have more to say about the original trilogy shortly, as I’m now being sucked back down that rabbit hole.

La Belle Sauvage emerged 17 years after the original trilogy concluded. It is the first book in a new trilogy, and functions as a prologue to Lyra’s tale. The book follows the young boy Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at an English tavern known as The Trout, which just happens to be next door to a nunnery where Lyra (as an infant) has been squirreled away. Malcolm is a classic Pullman protagonist- young, clever (though not formally educated), earnest and spirited. He’s a hard character not to like. Early on in the book, Malcolm becomes aware of some potentially nefarious activities surrounding the nunnery, and the story follows his escalating involvement in attempting to keep Lyra safe.

Often in my blog posts, I talk about how, for me, “plot trumps prose.” But with that said, there are some authors who just have such a natural way with words that I can only gape in admiration, and Pullman is certainly one of those rare few. Rationally, I know that Pullman hasn’t been sitting at a desk slowly crafting this story for the last 17 years, but I can’t quite shake that suspicion, because his prose is just so thoughtful and polished. Perhaps it’s just that I have a soft spot for the Brits (I grew up on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, etc.), but there’s just something so refined and careful about Pullman’s use of language, like there’s never a word out of place.

Ok, back to the review. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, even if the narrative wasn’t quite as compelling as that of The Golden Compass (if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably just that it didn’t include those sweet, sweet armored bears). Like Pullman’s other works, this is a perfect book to curl up with by a fire and sip English tea. I very much look forward to the next two books in the series.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Witches

Legends of Muirwood

By Jeff Wheeler

Jeff Wheeler’s trilogy centers on the young character of Lia, in the classic role of “young servant with mysterious parentage who will grow up to be someone important.” Book one, The Wretched of Muirwood, focuses on her emergence from obscurity, and the sequels, The Blight of Muirwood and The Scourge of Muirwood, chronicle her quest to master magical powers, etc.

In a way, these books were part of the inspiration for this blog, but unfortunately not in the manner that the author would presumably hope. Instead, it’s because at a certain point in book three, I remember looking up and thinking, “why am I still reading this?”

In fantasy more than other genres, I’d argue, there’s a certain occupational hazard in assuming that any given story will continue to mature and evolve. Something like 90% of the fantasy books I pick up (I’m only half-kidding) rely on the trope of “orphan who is meant for greater things,” so I’m typically okay with cutting the author some slack while the story finds its footing and develops into something more interesting. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t happen, and I’d argue that it doesn’t really happen here.

So if you’re in the mood for a classic “coming of age fantasy” story, I’d argue there are much better options out there (a recent example of which is The Shadow of What Was Lost, review TBD).

Rating: 1 – Skip it.

 

The Red Rising Series

By Pierce Brown

I took a trip to Iceland last fall, and in the process found myself frantically downloading books to my Kindle before I left. In the process, I ended up with Red Rising, which I hadn’t heard anything about previously.

Full disclosure: this isn’t a well-written book. I think the average sentence length is probably like 8 words, and let me tell you, this ain’t Hemingway.

“But Sam,” you say, “in your ‘About Me section,’ you say that you’re not interested in trashing authors’ work, right? Why so harsh?”

Also full disclosure: I basically inhaled this book, and its sequels Golden Son and Morning Star. Is it fine literature? Nope. Is it highly derivative of the Hunger Games? Yep. Did I read all three books within like 48 hours? You betcha.

Here’s the basic plot: in a futuristic dystopian society, a member of the downtrodden “Red” class manages to infiltrate the upper tier “Gold” class, and embarks on Hunger Games-esque adventures. And while I panned the writing of the first book, to be fair, the author is young, and improves over books 2 and 3. Throughout, Brown commands a strong control of the plot, and keeps the cliffhangers coming. If you enjoyed the Hunger Games (or even Harry Potter, for that matter), you’ll probably find something to like here. At the very least, it’s a good way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Warning: though this is something near young adult literature, there is a fair bit of violence and gore (a la The Hunger Games).

1/22/18 Editor’s Note: this book was initially given a rating of “2 – Guilty Pleasure.” As part of the blog redesign, all ratings of “Guilty Pleasure” have since been revised to “Recommended with Reservations.”

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter