Last time on The Sword of Shannara, the plot got moving surprisingly quickly as mysterious Awesome Dude Allanon made some portentious statements regarding Flick’s brother Shea, and also there was some sort of black wingy thing being all flappity and scary.
This time: we get an explanation of what that was all about… eventually.
My over-riding impression of this book so far is that reading it is like wading through very thick mud, in that making any sort of progress takes twice as long as it should. I don’t mean that in a Kvothe-style “nothing is happening” way (if anything the plot has actually been moving too quickly) but in the sense that there’s just way too much description attached to everything.
Take the opening paragraph of chapter two, where Shea wakes up following the events of the previous chapter:
Shea was awake early the next morning, rising from the warmth of his bed to dress hastily in the damp cold of the morning air. He had arisen so early, he discovered, that no one else in the entire inn, guest or family, was yet awake. The long building was silent as he moved quietly from his small room in the rear of the main section to the large lobby, where he quickly started a fire in the great stone hearth, his fingers almost numb with cold. The valley was always strikingly cold in the early-morning hours before the sun reached the rim of the hills, even during the warmest seasons of the year. Shady Vale was well sheltered, not only from the eyes of men, but from the fury of perverse weather conditions that drifted down from the Northland. Yet while the heavy storms of the winter and spring passed over the valley and Shady Vale, the bitter cold of early morning all year round settled into the high hills, holding until the warmth of the noonday sun filtered down to chase away the chill.
It’s filled with redundant information and goes into way too much detail on the weather conditions in Shady Vale. Let’s do some editing:
Shea was awake early the next morning.
, rising from the warmth of his bed to dress hastily in the damp cold of the morning air. He had arisenso early, he discovered, that no one else in the entire inn, guest or family, was yet awake. The long building was silent as he moved quietly from his small room in the rear of the main section to the large lobby, where he quicklystarted a fire in the lobby’s great stone hearth, his fingers almost numb with cold. The valley was always strikingly cold in the early-morning hours. before the sun reached the rim of the hills, even during the warmest seasons of the year. Shady Vale was well sheltered, not only from the eyes of men, but from the fury of perverse weather conditions that drifted down from the Northland. Yet while the heavy storms of the winter and spring passed over the valley and Shady Vale, the bitter cold of early morning all year round settled into the high hills, holding until the warmth of the noonday sun filtered down to chase away the chill.
The sentences I didn’t strike out convey all the information we need; the rest is just filler.
The fire crackled and snapped at the wood as Shea relaxed in one of the high, straight-backed chairs and pondered the events of the previous evening. He leaned back, folded his arms for warmth, and hunched down into the hard wood
Do you remember all those bits in The Fifth Sorceress where characters would sit back, get themselves nice and comfy and let their minds wander back into the mists of time? WELL HOLD ONTO YOUR BUTTS BECAUSE
Apparently after making his dramatic statement about searching for Shea Allanon refused to say anything more or explain what he was talking about, because that’s totally how people really act and not a clumsy authorial sleight of hand to both have something dramatic happen at the end of the first chapter and also advance to the next day without pushing the plot forward.
Shea’s thoughts drifted back
Mentally he retraced the events of his life.
Do we really have to do this
His early years were a vague memory
You mean just like everyone else’s?
Shea is an orphan (although you probably already assumed that) of mixed human/elven heritage whose human mother took him to live with the Ohmsfords due to an illness that eventually killed her. I might be mis-interpreting this, but reading between the lines it seems like elves in this setting are more mundane and simply comprise a certain portion of the population instead of being wispy mysterious forest kings, as the Ohmsfords are distantly related to Shea’s family but have no elven blood themselves and his elf heritage isn’t really hyped up as anything particularly out of the ordinary. I could be wrong about though, I’m just going by what we’re told here.
Yet nowhere could he remember an encounter with Allanon. It was as if the event had never really occurred. Perhaps it never had.
These sentences are utterly baffling. “He couldn’t remember ever meeting Allanon” would have been fine.
He shifted around in the chair and gazed absently into the fire
How about if instead of that, something happened?
“Do you know of the Skull Kingdom?”
Fuck yeah here we go.
It was a name that hinted of ghosts and goblins, of the sly forest Gnomes of the east and the great Rock Trolls of the far north
HELL YEAH THERE’S GNOMES.
The Skull Kingdom is basically Mordor, in that it’s a scary evil place where scary evil things live. But never mind that, it’s time for Shea and Allanon to have an extremely boring and dry expository conversation on the current state of humans in this fantasy world:
You make it sound like a terrible thing to want to be left alone. I know enough history-no, I know enough life-to realize that Man’s only hope for survival is to remain apart from the races, to rebuild everything he has lost over the last two thousand years. Then perhaps he will be smart enough not to close it a second time. He almost destroyed himself entirely in the Great Wars by his persistent intervention in the affairs of others and his ill-conceived rejection of an isolation policy
What I’m getting from this is that Shea has no personality and speaks as if he’s reciting a Wikipedia entry from memory. Maybe he’s supposed to be a Spock-like character?
As you know, I’m sure, the Great Wars brought an end to an age where Man alone was the dominant race. Man was almost completely destroyed and even the geography he had known was completely altered, completely restructured. Countries, nations, and governments all ceased to exist as the last members of the human race fled south to survive. It was nearly a thousand years before Man had once again raised himself above the standard of the animals he hunted for food and established a progressive civilization. It was primitive, to be sure, but
Actually scratch that, Allanon also sounds like a Wikipedia entry. This goes on for a really long time, by the way.
Take a minute to actually think about how ridiculous this situation is. It would be like me talking to a casual acquaintance about European history by giving them a refresher on the basic facts of World War II. Allanon states outright that Shea already knows everything he’s telling him, so why the fuck is this conversation necessary?
Many a battle was fought between Men and Gnomes
GNOME WARS. Can we just have a book about that?
Dwarfs are also in this setting. Apparently they were named “after a fictional race of the old days”. See, this is the problem with having your bog-standard trope-filled fantasy setting be explicitly set in the future of our own real world: it’s a pretty remarkable fucking coincidence that reality just so happened to start mimicking fiction.
The usual way to get around this is to have the real-world setting of your story differ only in the fact that whatever inspiration you’re drawing on doesn’t exist (ie the concept of zombies as fictional creatures doesn’t exist in the world of The Walking Dead). Or, hell, just don’t bring it up at all. Most of your readers won’t think about it if you don’t try to be a clever-pants by getting meta.
Anyway Allanon reveals that long ago all of the fantasy races fought to control the Northlands (even though he also says it’s a barren wasteland so I don’t know why), and humans were just as vicious about it as the rest, which Shea is surprised by because the story always went that humans were oppressed, and then the Druids opened the thing of the place and holy fucking shit how much exposition can there be in one chapter
The gist of all this bullshit is that umpteen years ago some dude named Brona rose to power, waged a genocidal war against all of the other fantasy races and was eventually defeated. I assume he’s our Dark Lord for the evening and will return in some manner before the book is over. I don’t know why, just a hunch.
Maybe he’ll have a big tower.
You seem to think of it as an isolation born of fear. But I believe it was and still is the best way to live. Central governments have always been the greatest danger to mankind. Now there are none-small communities are the new rule of life. Some things are better left alone by everyone.
Flick shows up to interrupt before Shea can start advocating for a flat tax-rate and supply-side economics.
“I really don’t know much of anything about him. He was a myth, as you said, the fictional leader of the uprising in the First War of the Races. He was supposed to have been a Druid who left the Council and used his own evil power to master the minds of his followers. Historically, he was never seen, never captured, or killed in the final battle. He never existed.”
“Historically accurate, I’m sure,” muttered Allanon. “What do you know of him in connection with the Second War of the Races?”
Shea smiled briefly at the question.
“Well, legend has it that he was the central force behind that war also, but
OH MY GOD STOP TALKING AND JUST GET TO THE POINT
This really reeks of an “I can be Tolkien too!” mindset, where Terry Brooks created this big thousand+ year fictional history and then vomited it across the page because he was just that excited to get it in front of readers.
After way more exposition and unnecessary detail about battles that happened a thousand years ago– way more, this seriously goes on for fucking ages– Allanon gets around to talking about a magic sword that was given to an elf king named Jerle Shannara (a sword of Shannara, if you will) during a war that may or may not have been instigated by a resurgent Brona. I’m now losing track of how many wars there were and how long ago they took place, because I don’t care about any of this.
The story of the Sword of Jerle Shannara is well known to all the races, but it’s only fiction, not fact-a glorified story of heroism created to stir up a sense of loyalty and duty in the races that have a part in its history.
BEEP BOOP I AM AN EXPOSITION ROBOT BEEP
Allanon flips out at this and starts ranting at Shea for being a naive child instead of whatever it is he came looking for. Eventually he calms down and finally gets to the point: Brona (now using the title of
Sauron the Warlock Lord) is alive and rules over Mordor the Skull Kingdom, and the only thing that can stop him is the One Ring the Sword of Shannara, which is in Rivendell Paranor.
I’m familiar enough with the plot of Lord of The Rings to spot these obvious similarities, but that’s about where my knowledge of the books ends; if you see any more granular points of comparison, please feel free to highlight them in the comments, as they’ll probably go over my head.
“A son!” spoke up Flick suddenly from the other side. “When the Warlock Lord appeared again in the Northland, a son of the House of Shannara would come forth to take up the Sword against him. That was the legend!”
Of course there’s a fucking prophecy.
Needless to say Shea is this Chosen One of royal lineage (or at least Allanon thinks he is) and Brona/the Warlock Lord/the Dark Lord (dude has a lot of names) wants to take him out before he can wield the sword of Shannara.
So I want to give you all a taste of how much exposition there is here, but I don’t want to just throw the entire text of the chapter up; as a compromise I pasted only those parts that consist of the characters discussing the backstory into a word document and took a screenshot of it zoomed out. Here it is in all of its glory:
That’s 3700 words of exposition and “ah ha, you thought it was a myth but IN FACT” and “SURELY THIS CANNOT BE TRUE?”. Compare that to how The Eye of The World handled the equivalent scene of Moiraine introducing the boys to their epic destiny; despite the overall much slower pacing the scene is relatively simple because the concept of the Dark One and his basic history had already been established, so all she needed to say was “the Dark One is coming for you, we need to skedaddle right now”. It helps that we actually got to see a Trolloc attack, which made the threat seem palpable and immediate. You know, showing and not telling.
I was also curious to see how the source material handled this, so I took a gander at the part of The Lord of The Rings where the mysterious magically powerful outsider tells the hero that they need to leave their tranquil home. I’d say it’s about as long, but it’s also a lot more readable because a) the Hobbits have heard of the basic gist of the issue so the narration can just talk about Sauron and Mordor and all that and b) the writing isn’t total bullshit. Take a look at this:
‘But last night I told you of Sauron the Great, the Dark Lord. The rumours that you have heard are true: he has indeed arisen again and left his hold in Mirkwood and returned to his ancient fastness in the Dark Tower of Mordor. That name even you hobbits have heard of, like a shadow on the borders of old stories. Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.’
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times.
Which is a lot more compelling than this:
“Very well,” the other acknowledged. “I shall try to complete our discussion quickly. What we have spoken of up to this point has been background history to what I will tell you now-the reason why I came to find you. I recall to your memory the events of the Second War of the Races-the most recent war in the new history of Man, fought less than five hundred years ago in the Northland. Man had no part in this war; Man was the defeated race of the first, living deep in the heart of the Southland, a few small communities trying hard to survive the threat of total extinction.
Well, legend has it that he was the central force behind that war also, but it turned out to be just another myth. He was supposed to be the same creature who had organized the armies of Man in the first war, except in this one he was called the Warlock Lord-the evil counterpart to the Druid Bremen. I believe Bremen was supposed to have killed him in the second war, however. But all that was only fantasy.”
“You know so little, though what you say is true enough. Truisms, my young friend, are the useless children of hindsight. Well, I don’t propose to argue with you now on the fine points of social reform, let alone political activism. That will have to wait until another time.
That last one is getting into Star Wars prequels territory.
I’ve been sticking to three posts per book, but I might do a few more for this to make up for the hiatus we took last week. Also, I’m curious to see if it gets any less boring.