Book review: The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Posted February 11, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 6 Comments

Book review: The Sword of Shannara by Terry BrooksThe Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Published by Del Ray Publishers on July 12, 1983
Genres: Fantasy
Format: Paperback
Pages: 736
Source: my shelves

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The Sword of Shannara takes place in the Four Lands (presumably in the distant future of our world), 2000 years after the Great Wars destroyed most of the planet.  Five races inhabit the lands:  Men, Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and Trolls.

Shea is a half-elven young man who has been adopted by the Ohmsford family and lives a quiet life in Shady Vale where he and his brother, Flick, help their father run the family inn.  Shea’s peace and quiet is broken when Allanon, the last of the Druids, shows up in Shady Vale and turns his entire life upside-down.  This mysterious Druid explains that Brona, the Warlock Lord, has returned to the Skull Kingdom in the Northland and is planning to take over the world.  He also claims that Shea is the last descendant of Jerle Shannara; this makes Shea the only one with the power to use the Sword of Shannara against the Warlock Lord and defeat him for good.  Before leaving as mysteriously as he arrived, Allanon tells Shea that he must make the journey to Paranor to retrieve the sword and put an end to the Warlock Lord.  But all of this is too much for Shea to absorb so quickly and he doesn’t immediately leave.

When an evil Skull Bearer of the Warlock Lord shows up in the Vale a couple of weeks later, Shea is forced to flee his home.  His ever faithful brother refuses to let him go alone, and so begins their perilous trek to Paranor to find the sword.  They make many friends along the way who aid them in their journey, but they must also overcome many dangerous obstacles.  In the meantime, the Warlock Lord has invaded the Southland and has sent a huge army of Gnomes and Trolls to Callahorn in the Northland to start another war.  On top of this, Balinor Buckhannah, the Prince of Callahorn and leader of its Legion Army, is already dealing with another crisis taking place within the country.  Can the brothers and their friends find the sword in time for Shea to stop the Warlock Lord?  And if they find the sword, will the innocent Shea have the courage to use it or will their world be taken over and destroyed?

This is Terry Brooks’ first novel, written over seven years while he was attending law school.  When it was first published in 1977 it was very well-received, but it also got its fair share of negative criticism from those who felt that it too directly paralleled J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR).  More than a few critics have accused Brooks of taking the characters and the plot straight from LOTR, while just changing the names of the characters, the places and the object of the hunt.  But while there are many similarities between the two books, there are also many differences, both in the characters and the plot.  And I have to ask:  What fantasy author hasn’t been influenced by Tolkien?  LOTR is the definitive heroic fantasy series, in my opinion, and gave the genre the popularity that it enjoys today.

For every piece of negative criticism, though, there are more positive reviews and I am on the positive side.  I really liked this book.  It had been so long since I’d read a fantasy novel that I’d forgotten how much I enjoy them.  The Sword of Shannara is very well-written, with my only complaint being the overuse of adjectives and adverbs in the first half of the book.  In my opinion, there are times when the object or action by itself needs no further description and I felt like the first half of the story was drowning in unneeded words.  If you tell me that not a sound was heard while they walked through the forest, then you don’t also have to tell me that they were walking quietly.  That’s already implied.  But once the real action started taking place, the overuse either stopped altogether or I was just so absorbed that I didn’t notice it anymore.

The storyline and action scenes are great, but I found the political undertones particularly interesting.  For example, when Allanon shows up in the Vale to inform Shea of what he must do, he first has to give Shea a lesson in the entire history of the Four Lands.  In the course of the conversation, they get into an argument about how the races interact with one another.  In defending Man’s isolationist attitude Shea says, “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.”  This infuriates Allanon and he responds:

I am well aware of the catastrophic consequences brought about by those wars—the products of power and greed that the race of Man brought down on its own head through a combination of carelessness and remarkable shortsightedness.  That was long ago—and what has changed?  You think that Man can start again, do you, Shea?  Well, you might be quite surprised to learn that some things never change, and the dangers of power are always present, even to a race that almost completely obliterated itself.  The Great Wars of the past may be gone—the wars of the races, of politics and nationalism, and the final ones of sheer energy, or ultimate power.  But we face new dangers today, and these are more of a threat to the existence of the races than were any of the old!  If you think Man is free to build a new life while the rest of the world drifts by, then you do not know anything of history!

Remembering that the story takes place far into our future, I think Brooks’ ideas about war and the nature of Man are pretty thought-provoking.

All of the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, but Hendel is by far my favorite.  There is just something about the quiet, grouchy, cynical Dwarf with the hidden soft spot that gets me every time.  As with any good book, I found myself very attached to the characters and sympathetic to their struggles.  I wanted to shout out and warn them when I knew they were walking into danger, and I wanted to clap them on the back when they overcame some major obstacle.  I laughed more than once, shed more than a few tears, and was on edge almost the entire time.

The evil things in the book are fantastic, too.  Most of them have no real substance.  They’re psychological.  They’re just shadows and things that make one feel nasty but that one can’t really see.  They made me feel like I did as a kid when I would wake up from a bad dream:  the room would be dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I thought I could feel that there was something in that room with me, I could almost hear it breathing or feel it moving towards me, waiting for the right moment to scare the heck out of me.

Final thoughts: The Sword of Shannara is very good.  In fact, I have already purchased the next two books in the series and I’m really looking forward to reading them.  Yes, it resembled LOTR in many ways, but from what I’ve read elsewhere it only gets better as the series goes on.  I would recommend this book to both teenage and adult fans of the classic heroic fantasy genre.  It is definitely worth the read.

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Note: The Sword of Shannara originally started out as a trilogy, but has grown into a series of 24 books.  To see the suggested reading orders for both new readers and those revisiting the series—and to learn more about the author—click here.

To read more about the discussion of its similarity to LOTR, see The Sword of Shannara Wiki page here (be aware of spoilers if you choose to read the entire page).

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  • Great review, Heather. I can definitely see parallels to LOTR, as I mentioned when we were chatting, but ultimately, it becomes its own story with a clear message. I have most of the subsequent books in the series, but since I never read series books right in a row, it will be awhile before I pick up the next book. I will look forward to your thoughts on the next two books.

  • I once read — and I honestly don’t remember where this was, but I’m thinking it was in some sort of introductory material or an interview or something with Brooks — that The Sword of Shannara actually started out as a Lord of the Rings fanfiction that explored the question of what would have happened if Elrond had sent Elladan and Elrohir instead of Legolas with the Fellowship, and also how different the mission would have been if they were going to retrieve something instead of throw it away. This might explain the extreme similarities between LOTR and Shannara.

    I will say though that the later into the series it gets, especially past that one, the more original it gets. I adored the prequel The First King of Shannara (well, until Brooks killed my favorite character about halfway through and I threw the book across the room lol), and following the series really shows how he developed and evolved away from something that was an almost direct mock of Tolkien and into something more original. Looking forward to seeing what you think of those!

  • I liked how the main character, potentially the hero to be, was not perfect. That he didn’t even know what he was to do. That was nice for me as I’m so use to reading books where the main character is always knowing what to do.

    This was a good fantasy read. So glad you all enjoyed it. 🙂

    • I liked that, too… that he wasn’t all buff and sure of himself. It was more realistic because of that. Brooks really did a good job with all of the characters.

  • scotty34

    After re-reading TSoS I am amazed that it got published at all. I dislike the stealing from LOTR and find the characters one dimentional and quite often dumb as a baseball bat. After finding out just how many books on this series Brooks wrote I couldn’t wait to throw this one away just as I discarded the booring Wheel series. I know people will wail over what I have just written but there are so very many fine books out there that are worthy of a readers time that reading these two ‘ol soaps is pointless.
    cheers, scotty

    • You’re entitled to your opinion, and I definitely understand what you’re saying. I’ve honestly been in no rush to read the rest of the series.