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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 story.

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.

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