Saturday, June 06, 2015

Book Review - The Darkling Child (Defenders of Shannara - Book 2)

So I've basically been a Terry Brooks fan for life...or at least since 7th or 8th grade when I first read the "Sword", "Elfstones" and "Wishsong" of Shannnara. Since then I've read nearly all of his novels only missing a few here and there when life got in the way. As such I have a certain sense of loyalty to Brooks and to the Shannara world in general. I really liked his sort of "origin" stories where he wrote about magic in "our" world and the end of our world followed by the creation of the world known in the Shannara stories. It was a fun weaving of stories and a nice change of pace.

That said, with his past few novels, Brooks has returned to his core worlds of Shannara fantasy and magic. This latest book, The Darkling Child is a stand alone novel that takes place 5 years after the previous novel, "The High Druid's Blade." It involves some of the same characters but introduces new characters and new dangers. At its heart, the book has the same main villain as its predecessor, the sorcerer Arcannen. After having his plots foiled and his world turned upside down in 'High Druid's Blade', Arcannen has spent the past five years essentially hiding out and rebuilding. What his exact plans are unknown (other than an overarching goal of eventually infiltrating and either taking over or destroying the Druid Order). New plans are set in motion in this book when the Federation discovers Arcannen's location (in the same village where some other outlaws and pirates are hiding out) and they send a force to destroy them. Arcannen escapes the resulting destruction but vows revenge on those who destroyed his village.

The new element in this book is a teenage boy named Reyn who happens to bear the ancient power of the wishsong (it's never explicitly said but I presume Reyn is "the Darkling Child" of the title...though perhaps it could be argued that Paxon may still be a darkling in development). Arcannen learns of this power and seeks to subvert and use Reyn for his own purposes. The druids sense the wishsong magic and send out Paxon Leah (the "High Druid's Blade") and a druid emissary to discover the bearer of the magic, determine any risk and decide what is to be done. Paxon is especially interested in this new wishsong magic since his sister, Chrysallin, was discovered to have the wishsong in the previous novel and the implications of that discovery are still unclear to everyone involved, especially Paxon and Chrys. Thus Paxon undertakes the mission out of loyalty to the Druids but also as a mission of discovery to try and determine the risks and needs of his sister and figure out the path they should take.

Even though this is a stand alone novel with only ~300 pages, Brooks allows the book to take on a larger saga-like feel by weaving together multiple storylines each with compelling characters. While not ever character receives the same depth and treatment, they are fleshed out enough to allow each storyline to be interesting.

We follow the storyline of Arcannen, Reyn and Lariana (a teenage girl brought by Arcannen to try and 'persuade' Reyn) as Arcannen works to subvert Reyn and exact revenge against the Federation fleet that destroyed his home. We follow the story various Federation leaders (both political and military) as they work through their plots to deal with Arcannen while still 'saving face.' We follow the story of Paxon and Avelene as they search first for the bearer of the wishsong magic and then for Arcannen and Reyn jointly. The interweaving of the various stories and the jumping between main characters allows for an interesting read that draws the reader in by allowing for greater analysis of motives and personalities.

With the title of "Darkling Child", I expected a little more subverting of Reyn (or someone)...a little more "dark side" or struggle (perhaps something akin to the first Shannara novels). I was a little let down that Reyn's struggles felt a little superficial and less than supernatural. Yes they were definitely valid and compelling struggles, just less "darkling" than I expected.

Generally speaking, I feel like Brooks has plateaued a little bit in terms of his writing. That's not to say this book (or some of his other recent books) are bad. They just don't feel quite as fresh as some of his other books and series. Granted, with ~2 dozen Shannara books, there's bound to be some "sameness", especially in order to maintain cohesion of the fantasy world involved. Still, for fans of the Shannara novels, this is a great addition. And for those who are looking for an entry point, the stand alone nature would help this be a good fit.

Overall the story is exciting and fun. Some of the scenes were a bit truncated for my taste, especially after some of the build up, but that's the hazard of a shortish stand-alone. The characters' actions and motivations were generally believable and the world was cohesive and engaging. Not the best of Brooks' work but still a worthy title to bear the Shannara heritage and be part of the overall library.

3 out of 5 stars

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