Out of the original trilogy of SHANNARA novels, The Wishsong of Shannara is possibility the best of the three, though certainly not Brooks’s best overall (not that his best is groundbreaking literature anyway). As one of the early detractors of Tolkien, Brooks’s SHANNARA series caters to the fantasy buffs that just can’t get enough of noble quests against evil — but with likeable characters, fast-paced narrative and some genuinely intriguing components stirred in Brooks’s works aren’t a complete plagiaristic waste.
Something makes me keep coming back to Brooks’s work each time he publishes a new book, that I can’t explain (and it’s not just the fact that my father loves him, buys his books and then passes them on to me). At this stage, I’ve simply become invested in his created world, but I know better that to enthusiastically recommend his work. The facts are twofold: 1. Brooks unmistakably bases heavily on Tolkien’s work. 2. Some people don’t care about that. You should know by this stage which category you belong to and whether you want to continue reading this review or not.
The great-granddaughter of Shea and the daughter of Wil (the protagonists of the first two books in the series), Brin Ohmsford is called upon by the Druid Allanon to undertake a mission for the sake of the Four Lands. Her father’s use of the magical Elfstones in the previous novel had an extraordinary effect on the capabilities of his children: both Brin and her brother Jair have magical abilities based in song. Coining it “the wishsong,” Brin and her brother simply have to sing for whatever they wish and it will occur. Brin is the stronger of the two since her singing actually causes reality to change, whereas Jair’s is based in illusion, and so it is she that is called upon by Allanon.
The Druid tells her about an ancient book known as the Ildatch, which is the root of all the evil that has ever plagued the Four Lands; the tome which corrupted the Druid Brona into becoming the Warlock Lord. Although Brona was destroyed in The Sword of Shannara, the book’s existence is still a danger to those seeking out power, having already created a new kind of evil that has been set loose in the world. The mission is simple: to find the book and destroy it.
Brin sees little choice in the matter, and sets out with Allanon and her friend Rone Leah to do precisely that (stopping for a couple of detours to the Druid’s Keep and the Hadeshorn to complete Allanon’s own mysterious errands). Jair is not happy about being left at home, but is soon caught up in his own adventure when he runs into two strangers: a Gnome called Slanter with whom he forms an unusual friendship, and the King of the Silver River who has a task for him that coincides with his sister’s fate.
Brooks is initially more interested in Jair’s story than Brin’s, as the first half of the book is devoted more to Jair than his sister (who simply follows Allanon around for the first part of her adventure), but soon things balance out to explore the inner struggles of both siblings. Brin is a thoroughly likeable young heroine and has a place in modern-fantasy history as the first female protagonist of the genre. Kind, clever, brave and resourceful Brin has her weaknesses too and as such comes across as a three-dimensional character. She’s backed up nicely by the loyal Rone and her brother (the sibling relationship in particular is strong despite the fact they spend most of the book apart, and is necessary for the completion of the plot).
Brooks is terrible when it comes to writing romantic connections between characters (I still wince when I think of Bek and Rue in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara; and other couplings such as Par/Damson and Pen/Cinnamonson aren’t much better), infusing too much corniness and melodrama into his love stories. But here, the romantic placing of Brin and Rone is fantastically done, simply because it is so understated. Instead of falling in love during the course of the story, Brin and Rone are already in love at the beginning of the novel (though they’re not fully aware of it) and just beginning to express it to one another. So instead of mushy nonsense, there is simply an unspoken bond between them that is palatable. Brooks shows us that they love one another, instead of relying on long-winded declarations of love that pop up in both earlier and later books.
So our three main characters are very good — but any and all supporting characters are sadly lacking. Allanon is there, the same as always but surprising developments remove him from the story reasonably early on. Jair’s followers (made up of an elf, a dwarf, a man, a warrior and a gnome) are never developed enough to make us care about them, and though Slanter is given a “crusty gnome with a heart of gold” persona, it comes across a little corny. Likewise, Brin is joined late in the game by a psychotic old man named Cogline and his bland granddaughter Kimber whose presence in the story isn’t really justified or explored. (Cogline will turn up again in THE HERITAGE OF SHANNARA series with a complete personality shift).
As always, the biggest criticism of Brooks’s work is its borrowings from Tolkien which go beyond the typical fantasy scenario (a detailed imaginary world, a quest narrative, good against evil, magical spells). With Brooks several things are so obviously taken from Tolkien that it’s painful — the cloaked and hooded “Mord Wraiths” (who are also called “Black Walkers”) for example. Even the concept of the wishsong is swiped from Tolkien (who in a throwaway passage mentions that Elves can create visions from the sound of their singing voices).
Unfortunately the concept of the wishsong is a flawed one. It is difficult for any author, not just Terry Brooks, to describe the sound of music and song, and so to make it the main focus of your novel is a little foolish. In this case it gets even more confusing, as Brooks never gives us any clear indications of how it works or what it sounds like; for example he mentions that the wishsong is composed of words, but we never get an example of what these words are. On top of all this, it’s quite disconcerting to imagine characters in terrible danger that save themselves by… singing. Sounds like something out of a Disney cartoon. It’s not that the wishsong is a bad idea; just that it is clumsily handled within the course of the story.
But despite my complaining, The Wishsong of Shannara is a solid story that is sure to entertain established fans of Terry Brooks’s works. When read as a complete series (seen in the context of past and future publications, including THE WORD AND THE VOID trilogy and the upcoming ARMAGEDDON’S CHILDREN) Brooks’s work is a fascinating history of a world with very close ties to our own. As a complete series, Brooks is in control of his created-world, and as such The Wishsong of Shannara also provides set up for further books in the series (namely the Sword of Leah and a strange ritual performed on Brin, both of which will not come into play till the next series, long after the two characters are dead). With this ongoing “master plan” in play across such a massive length of time, it is hard not to get sucked into Terry Brooks’s creation.
THE HERITAGE OF SHANNARA — (1990-1993) Publisher: Since the death of Allanon, life in the Four Lands has drastically changed. Yet Par Ohmsford still has some power of the Wishsong. And when a message from the ancient Druid, Allanon, reaches them, Par is ordered to recover the long-lost Sword of Shannara, and the glory that once was the Four Lands…
THE VOYAGE OF THE JERLE SHANNARA — (2000-2002) Publisher: When a half-drowned elf is found floating in the seas of the Blue Divide, an old mystery resurfaces. Thirty years ago, an elven prince led an expedition in search of a legendary magic said to be more powerful than any in the world. Of all those who set out on that ill-fated voyage, not one has ever returned. Until now. The rescued elf carries a map covered with mysterious symbols–and Walker Boh, the last of the Druids, has the skill to decipher them. But someone else understands the map’s significance: the Ilse Witch, a ruthless young woman who wields a magic as potent as his own. She will stop at nothing to possess the map — and the magic it leads to.
HIGH DRUID OF SHANNARA — (2003-2005) Publisher: Twenty years have passed since Grianne Ohmsford denounced her former life as the dreaded Ilse Witch — saved by the love of her brother, the magic of the Sword of Shannara, and the destruction of her evil mentor, the Morgawr. Now, fulfilling the destiny predicted for her, she has established the Third Druid Council, and dedicated herself to its goals of peace, harmony among the races, and defense of the Four Lands. But the political intrigue, secret treachery, and sinister deeds that have haunted Druid history for generations continue to thrive. And despite her devotion to the greater good as Ard Rhys — the High Druid of Paranor, Grianne still has bitter enemies. Among the highest ranks of the Council she leads lurk those who cannot forget her reign of terror as the Ilse Witch, who covet her seat of power, and who will stop at nothing to see her deposed… or destroyed. Even Grianne’s few allies — chief among them her trusted servant Tagwen — know of the plots against her. But they could never anticipate the sudden, ominous disappearance of the Ard Rhys, in the dead of night and without a trace. Now, barely a step ahead of the dark forces bent on stopping him, Tagwen joins Grianne’s brave young nephew, Pen Ohmsford, and the wise, powerful elf Ahren Elessedil on a desperate and dangerous mission of search and rescue — to deliver the High Druid of Shannara from an unspeakable fate.
GENESIS OF SHANNARA — (2006-2008) Mr Brooks is planning one more stand-alone novel in this series and he plans another Shannara trilogy. Publisher: Extrapolating from current world events, Brooks projects a worst-case scenario in which the steady destruction of all humankind is a reality. Plagues have killed half a billion, weapons of mass destruction have decimated entire populations, and the few survivors have retreated into a siege mentality, turning city stadiums into walled compounds and shutting out the “freaks” — those who have mutated from breathing the polluted air and drinking the badly fouled water. A variety of principals propel the transfixing yarn Brooks spins in this setting: Logan Tom and Angel Perez, both Knights of the Word committed to keeping the magic that binds all things together in balance; Hawk, a street kid who leads a group of other young people in Seattle; Kirisin, a young elf who is one of the Chosen safeguarding the Ellcrys, a magnificent tree upon whose existence the lives of the elves depend and whose safety is now threatened; and the demons and their minions, the once-men, who have been subverted by false promises and lies. Everything and everyone moves inexorably toward a deadly confrontation in the Northwest. Characterizations are dynamic and multidimensional, the descriptions of the land as well as the ruined cities and small towns are compelling, the action and battles are mesmerizing, and, as is Brooks’ wont, the ending is a cliff-hanger that leaves readers salivating for the sequel.
LEGENDS OF SHANNARA — (2010-2011) Publisher: The Genesis of Shannara trilogy — Armageddon’s Children, The Elves of Cintra, and The Gypsy Morph — charted the fall of our own world into the hands of once-men and demons… and the escape of a few humans, Elves, and others into a remote mountain valley walled in by impenetrable magic. For five-hundred years the survivors have lived peacefully, learning to coexist and to build a new world with the limited resources and skills available to them. Now the magic that kept them safe for so many centuries is wearing down. Frightening creatures are penetrating the barriers and wreaking havoc on the valley within. It is time for the four peoples to stand together and create the new world of Shannara.
SHANNARA’S DARK LEGACY — (2012-2013) Publisher: Seven years after the conclusion of the High Druid of Shannara trilogy, New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks at last revisits one of the most popular eras in the legendary epic fantasy series that has spellbound readers for more than three decades. When the world was young, and its name was Faerie, the power of magic ruled — and the Elfstones warded the race of Elves and their lands, keeping evil at bay. But when an Elven girl fell hopelessly in love with a Darkling boy of the Void, he carried away more than her heart. Thousands of years later, tumultuous times are upon the world now known as the Four Lands. Users of magic are in conflict with proponents of science. Elves have distanced their society from the other races. The dwindling Druid order and its teachings are threatened with extinction. A sinister politician has used treachery and murder to rise as prime minister of the mighty Federation. Meanwhile, poring through a long-forgotten diary, the young Druid Aphenglow Elessedil has stumbled upon the secret account of an Elven girl’s heartbreak and the shocking truth about the vanished Elfstones. But never has a little knowledge been so very dangerous — as Aphenglow quickly learns when she’s set upon by assassins. Yet there can be no turning back from the road to which fate has steered her. For whoever captures the Elfstones and their untold powers will surely hold the advantage in the devastating clash to come. But Aphenglow and her allies — Druids, Elves, and humans alike — remember the monstrous history of the Demon War, and they know that the Four Lands will never survive another reign of darkness. But whether they themselves can survive the attempt to stem that tide is another question entirely.
DEFENDERS OF SHANNARA — (2014- ) Publisher: From New York Times bestselling author Terry Brooks comes the first stand-alone novel in his legendary Shannara series in almost twenty years—the perfect place for new readers to begin. Paxon Leah never thought of the old family sword hanging above his living room hearth as anything other than an intriguing ornament—until his sister is kidnapped by a sorceror. Following the dark mage with nothing but this piece of steel to protect him, Paxon stumbles into a plot to remake the world . . . and accidentally unlocks the powers of the ancient blade.
PALADINS OF SHANNARA — (2012-2013) Stand-alone short stories.
THE FALL OF SHANNARA — (2017- ) The triumphant and epic four-part conclusion to the Shannara series, from one of the all-time masters of fantasy. Across the Four Lands, peace has reigned for generations. But now, in the far north, an unknown enemy is massing. More troubling than the carnage is the strange and wondrous power wielded by the attackers—a breed of magic unfamiliar even to the Druid order. Fearing the worst, the High Druid dispatches a diplomatic party under the protection of the order’s sworn guardian, Dar Leah, to confront the mysterious, encroaching force and discover its purpose.
Related SHANNARA books:
Prequel: First King of Shannara — (1996) Publisher: Horrified by the misuse of magic they had witnessed during the First War of the Races, the Druids at Paranor devoted themselves to the study of the old sciences, from the period before the collapse of civilization a thousand years before. Only the Bremen and a few trusted associates still studied the arcane arts. And for his persistence, Bremen found himself outcast, avoided by all but the few free-thinkers among the Druids. But his removal from Paranor was not altogether a terrible thing, for Bremen learned that dark forces were on the move from the Northlands. That seemingly invincible armies of trolls were fast conquering all that lay to their south. That the scouts for the army — and its principal assassins — were Skull Bearers, disfigured and transformed Druids who had fallen prey to the seductions of the magic arts. And that at the heart of the evil tide was an archmage and former Druid named Brona! Using the special skills he had acquired through his own study of Magic, Bremen was able to penetrate the huge camp of the Troll army and learn many of its secrets. And he immediately understood that if the peoples of the Four Lands were to escape eternal subjugation they would need to unite. But, even united, they would need a weapon, something so powerful that the evil magic of Brona, the Warlock Lord, would fail before its might…
Indomitable — (2011) Publisher: Master fantasist Terry Brooks first conjured the unforgettable world of the magic-wracked Four Lands more than three decades ago, and its boundaries continue to expand into new territory. With Indomitable, Brooks provides an essential epilogue to the beloved Shannara trilogy that started it all. Two years have passed since Jair Ohmsford aided his sister Brin in her quest to destroy the evil living tome known as the Ildatch. When word comes that a single page of the book, covered in lines pulsing with dark energy, survived Brin’s magic, Jair must take up the fight alone. But Jair’s gift is not the equal of his sister’s, and as he steals into the prison fortress of Dun Fee Aran — where he almost died in his first foray against the Ildatch — he has nothing to rely upon but the power of illusion. Illusion, and the memory of an ally who died to defend him.