Book Review: The Sword of Shannara Trilogy


Book: The Sword of Shannara Trilogy (includes: The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara)
Series: The Sword of Shannara Trilogy
Author: Terry Brooks
Genres: high fantasy, epic fantasy, adventure


Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“Twenty-five years ago, New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks wrote a novel that brought to life a dazzling world that would become one of the most popular fantasy epics of all time, beloved by millions of fans around the world. Ten more Shannara books would follow. Now, for the first time in one elegant collector’s edition hardcover, and featuring an introduction by the author, here are the first three novels of that classic series: The Sword of Shannara, The Elfstones of Shannara, and The Wishsong of Shannara—the beginning of a phenomenal epic of good and evil.

The Sword of Shannara
Long ago, the wars of the ancient Evil ruined the world. In peaceful Shady Vale, half-elfin Shea Ohmsford knows little of such troubles. But the supposedly dead Warlock Lord is plotting to destroy everything in his wake. The sole weapon against this Power of Darkness is the Sword of Shannara, which can be used only by a true heir of Shannara. On Shea, last of the bloodline, rests the hope of all the races.

The Elfstones of Shannara
The magical Ellcrys tree is dying, loosening the spell that bars the Demons from enacting vengeance upon the land. Now Wil Ohmsford must guard the Elven girl Amberle on a perilous quest as she carries one of the Ellcrys’ seeds to a mysterious place where it can be quickened into a powerful new force. But dark on their trail comes the Reaper, most fearsome of all Demons, aiming to crush their mission at any cost.

The Wishsong of Shannara
An ancient Evil is stirring to new life, sending its ghastly Mord Wraiths to destroy Mankind. To win through the vile growth that protects this dark force, the Druid Allanon needs Brin Ohmsford—for she alone holds the magic power of the wishsong. Reluctantly Brin joins the Druid on his dangerous journey. But a prophecy foretells doom, as Evil nurses its plans to trap the unsuspecting Brin into a fate far more horrible than death. Thus begins Terry Brooks’s thrilling Shannara epic, an unforgettable tale of adventure, magic, and myth.”

Notes of Interest:

I have never read any Terry Brooks books until now, but they have kind of always been on my “someday/TBR” list, so last year I bought The Sword of Shannara Trilogy. Over the course of the past year, I have read each of the books and just finished the last one as my last book for this year. I have decided to review all three books as a set this time, rather than reviewing them individually. This is partly to save time for me. But it’s also partly because I bought them together, and my feelings regarding all three books are the same. They are very similar in style and content, but where I noticed differences, I will point that out.

I decided to buy this trilogy after watching the Shannara Chronicles TV series — one of the few times that I’ve purchased a book after watching a visual media production. So, let me say here that they are very different. The TV series is based on the books, but it doesn’t follow them. The TV series is mostly based in the second book of the trilogy, The Elfstones of Shannara. The books are, of course, more intricately detailed with more content. But the TV series makes good use of the main content in its visual adaptation.

What could have made it better for me:

The one big fault I found with the series, particularly the first book of the trilogy, was telling more than showing. Brooks even mentioned this in the forward of book 2 or 3, admitting this was something that had to improve with time. I happen to be big on character interactions and backgrounds, so I really wish I had seen more showing than telling when it came to character interactions. As a result, the characters are developed with potential for standing out as unique personalities, but except for a few, most are more like archetypes for the hero quest. We are told about their actions more than we see their personalities drawn out by interacting with their travel companions. This makes for a good action-adventure story, but I, personally, need more character dialog and interaction to prevent stories from being “just” hero quests.

Also, my favourite aspect of this series, is underplayed: the setting of the world itself. These are high fantasy stories that take place on an earth where modern civilization as we know it has had a great war that spawned new races and reshaped the land itself. Some of those races (elves) are from the age of myth and magic, but have magic no more. Some of the races come from evolved forms of humanity. A few references are made to things like torches with no fire or earth magic in the form of a black powder. But the TV series makes better use of this concept for a post-modern earth, in my opinion. Again, I see so much potential, so it’s a little disappointing more wasn’t done with it. Without emphasizing fallen freeways, steel towers in ruins, or rusty cars in overgrown streets the books feel like an ordinary “Medieval/ Middle Earth” type fantasy setting full of dark forests, bleak mountain passes, and foggy swamps … which works well for any fantasy adventure story.

Lastly, book 1, The Sword of Shannara, was a bit confusing with the point of view for the narrative.

What I liked about it:

One of the characters that stood out to me the way I like characters to stand out was the dark druid Allanon. He appears in all three books as a mystic druid that raises more questions than he offers answers for. So though he doesn’t say or reveal much, the lack of background or intent from him suits his personality and purposes well. Another character that stood out to me was a minor character, Cogline. He’s a crazy old coot with a penchant for explosives, and if that doesn’t set him apart right there, his dialog will do it.

Brooks has a talent with describing scenery well. A lot of the word count is dedicated to setting the atmosphere of the settings, so you get a real feel for the changes of the seasons, the darkness of the abandoned keeps, the bleakness of the mountains, the horror of the monsters encountered, etc. The descriptions of the monsters as evil incarnate are particularly well done, so the challenge for each set of travelers is never underestimated.

The plots are fairly straight-forward, so pages turn quickly; but in each plot there is a price to pay for victories had. That’s not to offer spoilers, but to say Brook’s world is one in which magic itself is something rare and to be reckoned with. It does not come easily or freely to those capable of wielding it … which I think is a nice touch we don’t see very often in fantasy. In most fantasy worlds, magic is a given staple.

Which brings me back to my comments about the new earth setting. It reminds me a bit of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, in which a modern civilization fell to ruins and humanity divided and evolved into different races of predators and prey, both of whom have lost important, forgotten knowledge about their past. I love these kinds of concepts because of the way they blend dystopian and paradisaical elements of a new civilization rising from the ashes of something that literally destroyed the world as we know it today. These survivors often must hunt down something of great value that we take for granted in present times because it’s so common we don’t see the value in it, but in the case of the Shannara series it is the attempt to reclaim magic from before the age of man while living in the ruins of the age of man. I am disappointed this setting wasn’t milked for everything it was worth, but it’s a brilliant concept that I adore.

I found very few errors in these books; technical distractions were not a problem. The plots are solid. The style is fluid and easy to follow. These are good, basic heroic fantasy genre books that offer the adventure quest, escapism into new lands, and battles between good and evil that high fantasy and epic fantasy tales are best known for.


If you like Tolkien-style, epic, high-fantasy quests, but have a hard time muddling through the old-fashioned wordiness of Tolkien’s overly detailed world building, Brooks might be more your style. The characters are solid, the quests are challenging, and the journey itself is a large part of each story. But the poems, song lyrics, fictional languages, and histories of whose fathers were fathers of fathers and so on is minimized. I’m glad I bought the trilogy because over the course of all three books, Allanon’s life is presented as more of an arc over three mortal lifetimes. It was also nice to see how previous generations affected the futures of those who left with the consequences of their actions. In this way, it builds the world history as you read and see it happening. I liked these books. They’re a good “classic” addition to my bookshelf.


Derivative Works and Dream Casting

Dream Casting anyone? … Singer and actress Hanna Spearritt’s portrayal of Abbey on the BBC series “Primeval” comes close to being a good Aija in both looks and personality.

Recently a few people I talked to brought up the pipe dream of my books being made into films. At this stage it’s definitely a pipe dream! But one thing I’m learning about this year is forward thinking: moving toward what I want, rather than wasting energy on fear or doubts. So, I’ve decided … why not dream for a bit. 🙂

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on our love/hate relationships with derivative works … such as turning books into a film or TV series. But there are other conversions, too, like graphic novels, anime, and one very controversial topic in itself: fan fictions. I have much to stay about fan fictions and derivative works in general, but here’s my two cents on derivative works based on MY writing.

I self-publish right now because my priority is to finish and publish this series while I have the chance. Ever since I was a kid stapling pencil-illustrated books together for my stuffed animals I have dreamed of publishing books. So, right now, I’m not interested in selling to a traditional publishing house. I want complete control of this project from beginning to end, right down to the cover art. This is MY vision.

Having said that, would I sell to a traditional publisher if they asked? Probably. But contract terms would play a major role in how I sell it. I can always write more books, but this particular series has been on my brain since high school. I can’t let just anyone have Elf Gate because I wouldn’t want to see it twisted into something I don’t recognize just to make it fit the mold of market trends. I will continue to be stubborn about that.

Would I sell to someone wanting to make a graphic novel? Definitely. Again, contract terms would make or break the deal for me, but these books are dark fantasy, so they are practically begging for someone to develop them into a high-quality graphic series. However, these stories are very complex. I’m not sure how much would be lost in translation, but I would be okay with that because it is the nature of the beast when switching from whole pages of text to speech bubbles. It would take great skill to reduce the content enough that the images say everything necessary, but to see the stories come to life either as manga or western-style comics … yes, I would love that.

Would I sell to someone making an anime or action cartoon? Same answers as above: definitely, depending on the contract. When I first started writing it, I actually kind of envisioned it as an anime, a bit like Record of the Lodoss War. I think it would be well-suited to an animated format because live-action fantasy films and TV series are still kind of hit or miss.

Which brings me to live-action TV series or film. I’ll admit I’m not as confident about this kind of conversion because, while computer graphics technology have done miracles for fantasy elements in the visual arts, overall fantasy genre film and TV have a reputation for sucking. 🙂 (I say that lovingly, believe me.) Either they invest all their budget into special effects and end up with superior eye-candy but a flat story; or they write a really good story, but can’t invest in the high-end graphics, so it ends up looking cheesy. In spite of continued growth, fantasy is such an “unrealistic” genre that the budget to make the impossible come alive with credibility can make or break the project in the eyes of the fans. As a fan of the fantasy genre, I would want the final product to be high quality. But once the rights are sold, authors have very little say in the production. (Usually. Some production companies will hire the author as a consultant on the set, but not always, and they don’t always agree on how the book should translate into performance art.)

Source image: “Heath Ledger ROAR Tribute” by mldrfan. … Could you see him as Shei, the adorably blond-braided, quick-witted bard?

Along these same lines, I was asked who I think should play the character roles. I honestly haven’t thought about that much, but I think I would prefer motion capture or otherwise animated graphics, rather than actors under make-up. The reason is I don’t want my elves to look like humans wearing rubber ears or blackface. My elves are black, white, and shades of gray … not shades of pink or brown. Their facial features lean toward Far East Asian traits around the eyes and nose. I’m sure I could come up with actors who might look the part, or be versatile enough to play the role, but in some cases we’re talking about going back a few years … such as Heath Ledger making an excellent Shei or Triz … because, yes, he was that versatile. I could see a young Hannah Spearritt as Aija based on the character of Abbey that she played in the BBC series Primeval. But the one character portrayal that caught me by surprise as looking and acting soooo much like one of my own creations was Nichole Galicia’s performance as Kindzi on the American TV series Defiance. In the right kind of light, she was the spitting image of how I imagine Íenthé. If I ever come up with a better “dream cast” than that, I’ll let you know.

Nichole Galicia’s role as Kindzi on the American TV series “Defiance” was a stunning throwback to my own Íenthé. But with longer ears and fangs. 😉

And finally … there’s fan-fiction. I won’t get into fan-fiction as a topic here, other than to say as a writer and artist, I learned my trades by practicing with other works I admired. I think this is just how the untrained mind learns. However, copying already-published works without creator permission is theft. So, it’s where we draw the lines on what harms the creator’s earnings or perverts the integrity of the original work that form those conversations. In the end, it’s best to have creator permission when it comes to published works, or at least a link back to the source if it is not easily found via search engine.

Would I mind someone writing fan-fiction based on my original stories? I would like to think I would consider “imitation is the highest form of flattery,” as long as someone doesn’t actually infringe on my copyrights–by posting my stories on-line without my permission, by selling them for their own profit, by taking credit for the character creation on any fan art, etc.  I prefer to see the best in people.  And if I could spend more time world building, I could probably even be persuaded to participate in something like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds, where authors allow fans to legally use their world settings and canon characters to write their own plots. Some role-playing game companies, like Wizards of the Coast, have long been “fan friendly” when it comes to such things, and they even have a web page where you can download the company’s logos to help give credit where copyright credits are due. ( Since a large part of honing my own writing came from writing game material as a dungeon master, I know what it’s like to be so inspired by a story I loved that I hated to see it end … or had my own ideas about using an old setting to create a whole new plot and characters. … If, however, someone abuses my creations or does infringe on my copyright to steal credit or profits I worked hard for, I admit it would be hard to continue being “fan friendly”. Since I don’t earn much as it is, it would probably make me paranoid to share anything self-published if I knew someone was intentionally robbing me blind.

So, there it is … my fantasies about the future of my fantasy novels. 🙂 Will these ever come to fruition? Only time can tell. Right now, it is enough to have good reviews and thoughtful feedback from readers. Hearing back from readers is often the only thing that inspires me to keep fighting to make this dream a reality.  If nothing else ever comes of my scribblings, other than what I myself produce here at Bad Cat Ink, at least I can say I was fortunate for a short time to do what I felt I was put on this earth to do.

This amazing painting “Zi” by Heise (check out more of this artist’s work at the link shown in the corner) made me think of Trizryn while under his light elf illusion, but his skin would have to be even more pale than this. Graphic arts or computer graphics definitely have the advantage in bringing fantasy characters to life, imo. (Maybe a dream cast drawn up from art works would be a fun thing to do later, too!)

Derivative Works And How to Stop Cringing at Them

Image Source: Pixabay, Mysticsartdesign.

A derivative work is ANY subsequent work that was based upon an original. That means film or TV adaptations of books are derivative works. It means fan fictions are derivative works. And it means sequels and prequels where multiple authors are hired to contribute to a long-running series are derivative works. That last one might not be as widely recognized as such, but the fact that Agatha Christie is continuing to write Agatha Christie mysteries long after her death means a lot of professional fans are given legal copyright allowances under contract to continue her legacy with additional works based on the originals. Ditto for the Nancy Drew series, Star Trek series, Marvel comics, and so on. The only squeeze room for debate on this matter is if we’re talking about the original author reusing her own world and characters to create spin-offs. In such a case, the derivative work will not be reinterpreted through someone else’s vision. The original creator is in control. But the original work is still being referenced to create anything new borrowed from it.

So, why it is important for book, film, and TV lovers to recognize and appreciate derivative works AS derivative works?

When I was an English major in college, I took a Film Literature class. I also had to take Drama 101. These courses were often considered somehow less academic than the more traditional classes on Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, Linguistics, etc. (Probably because they are visual format, rather than linguistic: which I wrote about in a previous article on book snobbery.) But all forms of literature, including screenplays and stage plays require writers. Screenplays and plays can be just as deep as books, emotionally and creatively, depending on the circumstances under which they are adapted. And both books and film have limitations and advantages according to their nature.

Our syllabus for Film Lit was comprised of reading a novel, watching the movie based on the novel, then writing a comparison essay. We watched a few extra movies that were stand-alone or turned into books based on the films (which is less common, but occasionally happens). I learned that derivative works should be reviewed differently from original works, especially if they are different media formats, because there are very important differences between the two.

1) Understand the very fact that the derivative work is NOT the original makes it DIFFERENT BY DEFAULT.
People who expect movies to be like their original books are often automatically disappointed and highly critical — sometimes before they even see the final product. But to compare the product of a single author’s viewpoint and character creation to an attempt to recreate that same product by coordinating the various visions and talents of a director, producer, any number of actors, and stage and costume designers is an unbalanced comparison. Interpretations can get close to the original, but they will never be exactly what you expect because you, the director, the actor, and the author are all different people with different imaginations and different interpretations. If you ask 30 people to draw a bird, you will get 30 different-looking bird drawings because each person’s vision and talents are unique. Most will probably look nothing like a real bird. And an oil painting of that bird would look very different from a digital print. No amount of comparisons will turn that digital print into an oil painting or a real bird. To expect a film to be EXACTLY like you imagined the book is unrealistic.

2) Books will never in a million years BE films.
This underscores the first point, but more directly why. Films should be judged by film standards, not book standards. Books are linguistic; they use language to spark the reader’s imagination. If you’re a good reader, you probably enjoy books. If you’re not a good reader, does that mean you can’t enjoy good literature? Of course not. Some people are visual learners more than they are linguistic learners. (By visual I means “spatial”, not “able to see printed words on a page”.) Film and stage productions are collaborative visual and auditory efforts that spark the physical senses. Books and films are very different experiences, and that is as it should be. In books, if you skim descriptions, you might miss some of the atmosphere. But in film everything from lighting to camera angle to sound effects must be taken into consideration to be sure the atmosphere is credible. Books may or may not give detailed or vague descriptions of character faces, voices, and body language, according to whether it’s important to the scenes. But in film, actors have to convey all those things all the time to bring a character to life. And then there are props and costumes. In a book, we don’t usually care about the footwear of a Medieval knight on a battlefield. But in film, if a Medieval knight is wearing sneakers, someone somewhere will notice, and films automatically get marked down for little things like that, never mind the big offenses.

3) Attention spans and time are everything.
Another difference between books and their visual derivative works is how much time the author or producer has to tell the story and how much attention the reader or viewer is willing to give. The most obvious difference is that most people can’t read an entire book in one sitting, yet films can’t last longer than 2 hours average or people get restless and need bathroom breaks. TV shows, even shorter — 30 minutes to an hour. Why is this? The eye has an attention span of about 3-5 seconds. When you are reading, your eye continuously moves across the page, so it has less of a chance to get bored … unless the story you’re reading is more stale than week-old bread. But with film, that camera has 3 seconds to show you what’s important before your eyes start looking for something else to look at. If you watch old films or TV shows, you’ll notice the camera angles are more straightforward and change less often than they do today. Because today we know the change has to be continual, like scanning words on a page, or the eye gets bored. Loss of visual interest kills attention spans for story-telling. (I suppose the same could be said of audio books if the narrator reads in a monotone or if the eyes have nothing to look at while listening.) Books allow readers to mark a page and put it down when they need breaks. Since authors know this, books can be quite lengthy and epic in nature. With film and TV, however, you must keep the viewer’s attention for the entire story being told at that time. Pause buttons aside (which are not available for stage productions), that means you have to be able to clip the story into shorter, more quickly digested scenes. You can still stretch it over the length of a series for a TV season and get a lot of detail. But films have to cut everything that isn’t essential. They often have the daunting task of making an entire year pass in only 2 hours … or making two people who just met fall in love as if they’d been together forever. Books don’t have those kinds of restraints, which is probably why most people prefer books. They seem to go deeper, and often they do. But depth is not the same thing as length, and that is what must be remembered with reviewing film and TV and stage.

4) There is nothing new under the sun … unless we paint it purple.
All plots ever written have been written before. All plots ever written boil down to only three plots: man against man, man against nature, and man against himself. But that’s boring, right? So, we mix it up a little. What if we say man against woman, dog against cat, drug addict against his addiction? What if the dog is lost, and the cat is trying to confuse him so he can’t find his way home? Is that different from the dog plotting against the cat to take over the house? Yes. Suddenly we have something that feels brand new by changing the details. So, if we enjoy Romeo and Juliet, why not jazz it up a little to make West Side Story? Tragic stories of star-crossed lovers in forbidden romances have been told for many centuries in many cultures, and nothing is going to stop people from writing that same old plot. But they will keep changing the details to make it feel fresh and different. So, if “Beauty and the Beast” starts as a centuries-old folk tale, but is then adapted and adapted and adapted (to death), we will keep looking for new and different ways to enjoy this story. Because it is timeless. We don’t have to like every version produced. (Honestly, the thought of a US version of a female Watson to pair with Sherlock Holmes drove me away from watching that series the minute I heard about it. How *could* they?! John Watson is a British man, why would they change that?Why do an American version of the BBC series Being Human, while we’re at it? It’s not like there’s a language barrier; leave it alone!) But it’s a little late to complain about why someone would redo something rather than creating something new, or why they would redo it the same way, or why they would redo it differently. Each similarity brings the comfort of familiarity. Each difference gives us an alternate universe to explore. This is not a recent phenomenon. This is not something that makes a purple sun any less interesting on another world. … Or our own. I mean, WHAT IF the sun suddenly turned purple? Is that really so bad? As ludicrous as it sounds, it’s man against nature (or man, or himself), trying to figure out why he sees a different sun. (Btw, I watched both the American and the BBC versions of Being Human and liked them both, but for different reasons because they intentionally gave it a different plot and character twist based on the original BBC concept.  Maybe I should give American, female Watson another shot? *shrug*)

I recently heard the Witcher novels and games were going to be adapted to a TV series on Netflix. On the one hand, I was so stoked! :3 I love the Witcher series! On the other hand, there’s this little voice in my head saying, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” … Fans of anything in the literary or gaming world can probably relate, if not for Witcher then something else. So, I offer this bit of advice for fans everywhere who cringe when they hear that their favourite books are being turned into movies or TV series. You are right. The derivative work will never BE the original. Nor are they trying to replace the originals. But if you can be flexible and learn to enjoy derivative works for what they are (something based on the original that in no way can possibly be the original), you will find derivative works a lot more enjoyable because you’ve shifted your expectations to a more realistic standard of judgment. 🙂