The Elfstones of Shannara,
and The Wishsong of Shannara
Author: Terry Brooks
Series: Original Shannara trilogy #1-3
Pages: SoS: 726
Published: SoS in 1977
EoS in 1983
WoS in 1987
Rating: SoS: 2/5
Long ago, wars of ancient Evil ruined the world and forced mankind to compete with many other races - gnomes, trolls, dwarfs, and elves. In peaceful Shady Vale, half-elfin Shea Ohmsford knows little of such troubles until giant, forbidding Allanon, with strange Druidic powers, reveals a supposedly-dead Warlock Lord plots to destroy the world.
The sole weapon against this Power of Darkness is the Sword of Shannara, only usable by a true heir of Shannara. On Shea, last of the bloodline, rests the hope of all the races. Soon a Skull Bearer, dread minion of Evil, flies into the Vale to kill Shea. To save the Vale, Shea flees, drawing the Skull Bearer after him.
The Shannara books are a staple for fantasy fans that grew up in the eighties and nineties. Though The Sword of Shannara is the most generic and ... obviously inspired... by Lord of the Rings, they soon break from the bland established mold and become creative, well-drawn, immersive reads. Brooks is an author that is adequate at plotting, but excells in worldbuilding and in characterization. As the series continue in Elfstones and Wishsong, those two aspects become the major selling point and the reason he could launch so many spin-off and sequel series from these three novels.
I won't say much about the first book because it honestly merits little thought and makes little impact on its own. It's very generic, very much a debut, and very clearly, as I said earlier, inspired by the major fantasy novels that preceded it. The plot and the general aspects are not very original in The Sword of Shannara but there are original characters that go on to have influences and descendants on the later books and series. For a first time reader of the series I wouldn't go as far as to say it can be skipped, but it can be skimmed when it veers too boring or repetitive.
Elfstones of Shannara is the series second book and where Brooks really shows his abilities as a fantasy author. The world shown in book one is expanded and built upon. (It's a post-apocalyptic Earth with evolved races like elves*, trolls, gnomes, Mwellrets, and more. It's smart without being smug.) The author uses and reinvents some creatures we have seen before, like the Furies, a Reaper, but also invents a myriad of his own that are creepy, effective, memorable, and totally original (Dagda Mor, Changeling - dear christ THE CHANGELING). The lore of this often wartorn world -- the Ellcrys, the details on the world before -- is also expanded in a way that makes sense and provides a much more engaging and fresh plot for the story.
As much as I appreciated Brooks stepping it up in the plot and worldbuilding department for book two, the characters are what truly make Elfstones (and later Wishsong) such favorites of mine. Shannara is a world of ships, OTPs, and all-time favorite characters for me; it's what I love the most and remember most vividly. The people created are vast, disparate, unique, sympathetic, or unknowable; Brooks can craft a hero, an antihero, a confused girl equally well. Wil and Amberle from Elfstones pretty much introduced me to ships and OTPs. Crispin and his Elven hunters were as real to me as Allanon.
Wishsong takes what Elfstones really began to show and fleshes out the world even more, though in a shorter amount of pages. The plots in each book center on different parts of the world and showcase Brooks' talent for setting and worldbuilding. Wil's kids are the main characters here, and again, their skillful characterization is the highpoint of the novel. Brin (daughter) and Jair (son) also get a new form of magic -- another that is more original and useful than the standard for the first two. Brooks doesn't get lazy with plotting - while the stakes and tension aren't as high as in Elfstones - this journey for these characters is more personal. This was another book that boasts shippy goodness and great chatracters; Rone and Brin are OTP but let's be real, I start the book counting down the pages until Garet Jax appears.
The original series concludes on a strong note. The Sword of Shannara is a bland novel; one that seems exhaustive at over 700 pages. However, the rest of the series that springs from it is more than worth the time and investment if you're into complex worlds, interesting conflicts, and well-drawn characters. Brooks is one of fantasy's most prolific and long-running authors. Shannara is widely-explored world and one that is always fun to revisit. I've read the first book twice (once as a teen and again for this review + the upcoming show) but I've read the second two about four times each. I reread them for fresh eyes on the MTV show but it just lead me to rebuy and reread the series after it.*
*there's later Shannara canon that goes on to differentiate how the elves exist/always existed in this world but it's pretty in-world and not relevant here. I just put this disclaimer for any super Shannara fans (are there any of you besides me??) that come at me for being wrong.
*that's the four-book Heritage of Shannara series and I will try to review it in January because I WANT TO