Every year, usually around May or June, I make a trip to Barnes and Noble. I frequent library book sales, used book stores, and garage sales for most of my books; I’m something of a book hoarder. So I resist the temptation to go to the big name brick and mortar giant. But when Terry Brooks’s annual novel hits the bookstores, so do I.
My Sick Shannara Addiction Problem
An integral part of this tradition is that I tell myself I will savor this book, since there won’t be a new Terry Brooks book for a whole year (there was an exception to this rule with the phenomenal Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy, which saw two books go to print in one year). Instead of rushing through it as if the lives of the characters depend on my rapt attention, I will inhabit this book – I’ll take a whole week to read it. Ha. Yeah right. Most of the time, I end up pulling an all nighter and escape the spellmaster’s wishsong by the breaking of dawn. Book readers talk about the book hangover – that feeling of, What will I do, where will I go, to where will I turn, when this story has happened to me, and everyone around me is just acting the same?
A Brooks novel is like that for me, but in reverse: within the first few pages I am inebriated with the memory of the Four Lands, the world of Shannara that I have lived in since my pre-teenage years. A Brooks novel is sort of like Christmas: it slows down time and puts on pause my other responsibilities (writing my dissertation, sleeping enough so I can make it to class – the one I’m teaching, not the one I am taking, talking to other human beings like a civilized person, et cetera et cetera) while I make sure that the people of Shannara, Landover, or the Word and the Void are going to be okay.
I bought the conclusion of the Defenders trilogy with this farcical promise of reading temperance ringing in my ears on March 24th, the day the book was released through Barnes and Noble. I had the strength of will to finish the book by the 26th, and oh my goodness. It’s a good thing my eyes only water because of allergies, or someone might have thought I was having emotions about a Brooks novel. Nothing to see here (*blows his nose in the corner*). If you’re a veteran reader of Brooks, or if you’re a first-time reader of his corpus, Defenders is an excellent starting place for you.
It puts on full display the world Terry has built without leaving you feeling lost or out of place, while also illustrating Terry’s particular gifts as a storyteller: taking you through the emotions and thoughts of characters as they make challenging decisions about situations that deeply embroil personal matters with high stakes geo-political concerns. I recommend starting with The High Druid’s Blade, the first in the series, but The Sorcerer’s Daughter is the true capstone novel of the trilogy. And it will prepare you for the challenging decision of how to tackle the Shannara novels if you’ve become interested in engaging one of the foundational worlds of modern fantasy literature.
Navigating the Shannara Novels
Recommending Terry Brooks is always a challenge for me, though, because of the problem of entry points. Where to begin? With Landover it’s easy – start with Magic Kingdom for Sale-Sold! because, well, it’s the beginning, and it will get you to pick up the next one. I mean, if you have anything like a taste for fantasy, a sense of humor, and aren’t a boring person, it will. The Word and the Void trilogy has to be taken as a whole – there’s no other way to encounter it. Reading the second book would be like starting with Dante’s Purgatorio. Okay, maybe Terry wouldn’t be comfortable with that comparison (maybe I’m not either), but the point is, Word and Void is a perfect story. Just read the whole thing, and I’ll let you know if you have a soul depending on how you react to it.
Shannara is another ball of wax, even though WaV is technically the prequel to the post-apocalyptical fantasy setting of the Four Lands that is our Northwest USA, but with more Elves, Druids, and enchanted lakes than we usually admit exist in the world. First King of Shannara is a great starting point, but its real pleasure is as an enlargement upon The Sword of Shannara. Sword is unmitigatedly delightful fantasy, but the drawback with Sword is it doesn’t reflect the growth of Terry Brooks as a writer or worldbuilder. I’m not really sympathetic to the complaints about Terry’s use of Tolkien as a source of inspiration – that is a blog post I intend to write in the future in greater detail.
For now, suffice it to say, stories work through tradition. If you read my post about the adaptation of Elfstones of Shannara into The Chronicles of Shannara, you’ll see a glimpse of what my attitude is about artistic tradition. But I do agree with the wisdom of starting with Elfstones and moving into Wishsong. But the problem is, for most of these books we’re talking two, three, or four decades ago. Of course I want to recommend the most recent Terry Brooks book, and I always do, but I also have to assign the homework of at least two or three backgound books. Dark Legacy lives and breathes, for example, in the legacy of the Elfstones novel; Voyage of the Jerle Shannara really requires at least knowledge of The Wishsong of Shannara and The Heritage of Shannara. And of course Heritage (my personal favorite of the series) hits home the best when you’ve read the original trilogy. In my opinion, for that matter, the Genesis of Shannara gap novels hit the spot when you’ve encountered The Word and the Void and the original Shannara trilogy at least.
But I think if you get a taste for it, you won’t stop.
The Defenders of Shannara: A Perfect Place to Start Your Journey
So it’s been a while since a Shannara series has come out that does not require pre-reading of a couple of books – again, in my opinion. What Terry has done with the Defenders trilogy is excellent because for new readers, they will be able to follow along in any direction: read this recent trilogy, and you’ll be ready to go forward to the upcoming, timeline-ending quartet (*sobs*), or go and catch up on reading Elfstones and Wishsong. Even if you’re just looking to sample what a Brooks experience is like, you’ll find here a representative set of gripping stories that give you a clear insight into what Brooks has achieved in his craft.
And while the Defenders trilogy provides a great entry point into the world of the Four Lands from the other side of Terry’s fantastic career, it also will enchant his longtime fans. He’s getting us ready for something big in this four part finale; you can feel it palpably brewing in The Sorcerer’s Daughter. Incidentally, picking favorites is always hard when it comes to a world of imagination that has been my mental furniture since childhood, but it’s my duty as a reviewer to give such commentary. As such, I should say that I think The Sorcerer’s Daughter is the best Shannara novel since The Druid of Shannara, which is my favorite in the series as a whole.
May you greet the dawn with a Terry Brooks book in hand!