Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review - Bearers of the Black Staff

With Bearers of the Black Staff, Terry Brooks continues bridging "our" modern age of science and technology with the magical world of Shannara. This book takes place after the global apocalypse at the end of the Genesis of Shannara series. The heroes from that series have spent the last 500 years protected and trapped inside a valley deep in the mountains. An ancient faerie magic has kept them safely isolated from the dangers of the world outside. And now, the magic barrier is coming down and the people of the valley must somehow transform into the people of the Four Lands we've come to know from other Shannara books.

As of right now, this book is the first book in a duology. I've heard rumors that there will be a third book, but as of right now there doesn't seem to be any evidence confirming those rumors, so I suspect that the second book will finish up this storyline and thus also finalize the trajectory that moves us wholly into the mystical world of druids, elves, trolls, men and magic.

The people of the valley are obviously unprepared to deal with whatever dangers lurk outside. Furthermore, many of them are entrenched in their ways and are very reluctant to even entertain the possibility that the magical barrier is coming down. There is a religious sect with beliefs based on "the Hawk"…the Gypsy Morph boy who led the people into the valley in the first place. In exploring this sect, Brooks (through Sider) makes small commentary on the concept of religion especially in the face of changes in the world. The commentary wasn't especially critical in one way or another, but it was an interesting aside.

Like Brooks's other books, in Bearers we are introduced to a variety of characters, most of which are young or otherwise inexperienced in wielding magic or even mundane weapons of any kind. Our central characters include the current Knight of the Word, Sider Ament, a pair of human trackers he encounters, Panterra and Prue. As the story progresses, we meet other characters who become important in this book and will have obvious importance in the subsequent novel. Aside from Sider, the 3 primary characters (Panterra, Prue and the elven princess Phryne) are very young and impetuous. This is sort of standard operating procedure for Brooks but what felt odd to me was that even though these three characters were obviously going to be of extreme importance (especially knowing Brooks's formula), I was surprised at the level of involvement we got from these three. They were certainly involved in the adventure, but they seemed hesitant and nervous and weren't ever really pushed into the position of action that I kept hoping for.

In fact, even though the story development was interesting, part of me felt like this book was really stalling. I was very compelled by the idea of an isolated culture suddenly being confronted by new horrific dangers. I was excited by the thrilling adventure early on when we get a small glimpse of the kind of creatures and threats from outside the valley. I was satisfied with the intensive treatment to character and social development of the community inside the valley. But overall I was a little let down by the lack of much forward momentum. While the details were great, I felt like we got bogged down with a lot of details to fill the pages and stretch the story out into multiple novels. I found the writing and the development interesting, but I would have much rather had a bit less description and smaller degree of character/psychological development in lieu of a steadier progression towards the actual climactic confrontation between those in the valley and those outside.

While there were a few nice surprise revelations in the story, I felt like large chunks of the story were moderately predictable and formulaic. Each time a new character was introduced, it seemed like the story arc had to slow down and expand accordingly in order to create additional scenes to show individual character history and development rather than allowing for rapid character development through shared scenes where we get to know the traits and behaviors or many characters at once.

Overall, I still enjoyed this story. Part of that is certainly due to my nostalgic love for all things Terry Brooks and my joy in having more material that expands and explains his world. The story, characters and plot are intriguing and compelling. I just personally felt like we were being strung along in order to turn this overall story into two ~300 page books rather than (perhaps) a single book of ~450-500 pages. I feel like the story could have been tightened up and become significantly more compelling and interesting without losing much in terms of content or development.

If you haven't been following the series (particularly Genesis of Shannara), you might need a little synopsis catch up to get your feet, but Brooks usually does a pretty good job of reminding or educating readers the basics of what's come before. Die hard Shannara fans should have a good time and I'm sure it will hold general appeal to the fantasy readers as a whole. I was let down that this book didn't get farther along before running out of pages, but that just leaves me more interested to find out what happens in the next book.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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1 comment:

Brian Miller said...

a bit sad, i remember reading the sword of shanara and the elfstones when i was younger on vacation...