The First King of Shannara
Reviewed: August 12, 2008
By: Terry Brooks
Publisher: Del Rey Books
480 pages, $10.99
There are many ways to create a setting for a science fiction or fantasy novel.
In the Star Wars saga, for instance, George Lucas began with that memorable
title opening “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...” reversing
the usual expectation that would see an SF novel set in the future.
A great many fantasy novels, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to Robert
E Howard's Conan the Barbarian, seem to be set in a much earlier period of our
planet’s history, in some half remembered pre-cataclysmic time. Like Lucas
Terry Brooks reversed our expectations.
The first of Brooks’ Shannara novels, The Sword of Shannara, seemed to
be a straightforward attempt to emulate the Tolkien pattern and therefore seemed
to be another time-lost fantasy, By the second and third books, however, Brooks
had begun to break away from his inspiration (most notably in the creation of
strong female characters) and had taken the Quest formula in new directions
while still paying homage to the basic concept.
One of the big changes was that we became aware that these stories were set
in our future rather than in our past. The basic idea was that science and magic
were different ways of approaching the organization and manipulation of the
world. Sometimes one of them dominates and sometimes the other, but both are
always present to some degree.
After writing the third book in his original trilogy, Brooks decided to back
up and tell us more about how it started. Most of the books since have been
filling in this back story, relating the fall of the science based world, the
rise of the magic users and the centuries of events that led to the original
If you look at a reading list for Brooks’ novels you will find this one
listed before Sword. That makes sense in that the events of this novel take
place several generations before the events in Sword. Where it doesn’t
make sense is that some of the charm of that first, occasionally clumsy, novel
lies in the fact that you don’t know about the fall of the druids, the
origin of the druid mage Allanon, the genealogy of Shea’s family or the
provenance and power of the Sword of Shannara.
For me reading First King for the first time now was enhanced by the number
of times I stopped and went ‘Oh - so that’s what that was about.’
Of course, you could enjoy the novel because it contains all sorts of foreshadowing
for things that will come later, but I liked it the other way around for the
same reason that I would never encourage anyone to read C,S. Lewis’ The
Magician’s Nephew before reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
The outline of this novel is pretty much embedded in the history lessons contained
in the original trilogy. The science based world fell apart (a story that Brooks
has begun to tell in his latest sequence of novels, The Genesis of Shannara)
and magic reigned. With the magic came creatures of Lovecraftian strangeness,
and the reemergence of the Elves, who had been with us all along, but had been
hiding. Dwarves and some other humanoid species seem to have mutated from human
stock during the great disaster (a nuclear war? an ecological catastrophe?)
and have taken on names and characteristics remembered from old legends.
The Druids developed as a kind of monastic order dedicated to the preservation
of knowledge and history. They knew something of science, but more of magic,
and it seems clear that either way of looking at the world can work positively
or can be corrupted.
Brona, or the Warlock Lord, became corrupt, learned how to stretch out his life,
amassed great power and sought control. He bent the supernatural creatures to
his will. There were still lots of humans around, and it appears they were duped
into joining him in a genocidal crusade against the other races. He was beaten,
but not killed.
All that was centuries ago, and now he is back, raising armies, hatching plots,
marching on the strongholds of any who had opposed him before.
In the beginning the only ones who believe in the danger and will act to counter
him are Bremen, an estranged druid; Kinson Ravenlock, a Borderman and tracker;
and two other druids. Tay Trefenwyd is an Elf, and a druid who specializes in
earth magic. Risca is a Dwarf and a warrior druid.
Others will be added during the triple quests that drive the plot. Tay is sent
to find the Black Elfstone and keep the Warlock Lord from getting it. He is
also to rouse the Elves. Risca is sent to mobilize the Dwarves. Bremen and Kinson
try to save the druids and failing that, to create a weapon with which to destroy
Brona’s power. Along the way they are joined by Mareth, the only other
druid to escape Brona’s wrath at the sacking of the druid’s citadel
of Paranor. She is one of two essential female characters in this book, the
other being Preia, the Elf tracker and warrior maid who becomes the wife of
Jerle Shannara. He, in turn, becomes the first king of the title.
I enjoyed most of this book, but to my taste it has a flaw, and it’s the
same one as in the original trilogy. Brooks likes to describe battles and I
feel that he spends way too much space detailing the struggles of defenders
against desperate odds. Fantasy novels don’t tend to be character driven,
but the quieter moments in this book are among the most interesting, and I found
myself wishing there were more of those and less bombast.