Monday, February 21, 2011

Bearers of the Black Staff, a Review+

Hundreds of years after the fall of man, civilization is starting to come of its shell once again. Humans, Elves, Trolls, and others are all forced to survive the in their sequestered valley and surrounding lands. But even in the fledgling stages of rebirth, darkness and evil makes its way into hearts and threatens all.

Like all other Terry Brooks novels, Bearers of the Black Staff is heavy on the characters, this time focusing on three main points of view. The Gray Man is the current bearer of the staff, a man descended from the long lineage of the Knights of the Word. Panterra Qu is a young scout learning the tricks of his trade with his partner Pru. Phryne, an Elven princess, is nosy and annoying and, uh, that's about it. These three each have their own wars to fight, but together there is something that will unite them all. That said, none of these are too terribly deep, but they're still somewhat engaging, if not familiar.

Terry Brooks also tends to have quick, fast-paced chapters, and Bearers is no different. Things are always happening, be it a boring council meeting, a dangerous encounter in the woods, or any number of other activities. There's little down time in the three hundred plus pages, and yet, when I finished reading the book I felt like the focus could have been tighter and some pages omitted.

This book, I think, is just another addition to the Shannara canon. It helps develop certain races more, as well as give insight to why certain things are in the Four Lands, beginning with Sword of Shannara. It furthermore serves to link the Word & Void series to the Four Lands, and while it makes sense, it makes me wonder if this was Brooks' original intent.

Overall, Bearers of the Black Staff gets a passing rating, but only because I've been a Terry Brooks fan for a long time. The tale is uninspired and predictable and has been told in pretty much any other Terry Brooks novel already in print. Unless you're a big Terry Brooks fan, this one's okay to skip.

I feel obligated to say more, as this review probably comes across as a negative review.  (Apologies to those that already know this.)  First off, had it not been for Terry Brooks I very well may not be reading fantasy fiction.  The man's novelization of Star Wars: Episode I was an enjoyable read for me, so I found other books Brooks had written and fell in love.  At the time I didn't care that it was very Tolkienesque, and even now I don't care.  In my heart, Terry Brooks writes fun books, and Bearers of the Black Staff was ultimately fun.

That said, Brooks falls into old patterns, and verily, practically every book from Sword of Shannara onward is largely repetitive.  Stock characters and similar situations, plus a deus ex machina that is predictable from the onset.  (Does that even make it a "god out of the machine?")  So I suppose that really I've grown frustrated that Brooks seemingly doesn't challenge himself in his writing.  He doesn't push boundaries or throw wrenches, but relies on what's worked for thirty years.

Terry Brooks is a very successful author, and his books are gobbled up like crazy.  I've read 29 of his 32 fiction books, and I've enjoyed every one of them, some of them very much so.  I, for one, thought the Heritage of Shannara series was awesome, the Word & Void was amazing, and The Wishsong of Shannara was very cool.  Brooks writes smooth prose that's easy to understand, and this could be one of the reasons why he's so popular.

Still, I'd love to see him push himself more and see what he can do.


I'm also wondering if part of the reason I didn't enjoy this book (nor the Genesis of Shannara series, for that matter) is because my tastes have irrevocably changed.  Brooks writes in the high, epic fantasy field (well, he did until his world of the Four Lands turned into our ruined earth, so now I guess it's low fantasy, but regardless), an immensely popular subgenre of fantasy.  This was the norm pretty much from Tolkien through the end of the 1990s.  People (myself included until 2005ish) were so entrenched in stereotypical fantasy cliches that when the new batch of fantasy authors hit the scene the world was turned on its head.

That's probably why I love Pat Rothfuss so much.  He's the one that opened my eyes and showed me what the genre could be.  The Name of the Wind was fresh and new, and after reading it I knew my genre reading would be forever changed.  Brooks was good, but Rothfuss... oh my.  Rothfuss was like going from soggy oatmeal to a ribeye.  I didn't know what I was missing.  Then someone turned me on to George R.R. Martin, something so different than Tolkien or Brooks, and fantasy came alive.  I devoured Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Peter Brett.  It's what I love reading today, fantasy that's smart and pushing boundaries.

Do I still like reading Brooks and Tolkien?  Absolutely.  Tolkien, in particular, will always be up there, as will Brooks, I suppose, but this type of fantasy is so familiar that it's not very exciting to read anymore.  I've not read The Wheel of Time mostly because of this very reason, that I know how it's going to be and I've just not allowed myself to get into such a long, cliched epic fantasy.  One day, perhaps, but not now.

This has me thinking about the current state of the genre.  One opinion is that modern fantasy is nihilistic and awful in comparison to Tolkien, and plenty agree.  Others, like myself, are excited about the current state of affairs and think modern authors create works of beauty.  I'm definitely not the only one to be frustrated by Brooks' familiar writing style, but, if his next novel read like an Abercrombie book, I daresay many of his legion of fans would be disappointed and shattered.

It's a fickle world.  I'll just keep on reading, I guess.


Abbie Josephsen said...

I haven't read all of Terry Brooks' books but my favorite series so far was the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, just because it was on those awesome flying ships :) but it was pretty dark toward the end... but still really good! my favorite aspect about all his books is that you can count on having an elf, a rogue man, a noble man, a wizard and the regular person of shannara. lol :) and usually all of these characters are ancestors of the people a book before haha!

Anonymous said...

i have an author that her books have become very predictable, living proof on how a formula can be recycled over and over rather successfully. I will still read most every new one that comes out. I don't mind the predictability as long as I am getting the more challenging or inventive read elsewhere...although there are times when I get frustrated, like you, that the author might be choosing comfortable success over the risks; or the possibility that their readership might not let them.

enjoyed your "oatmeal to ribeye" thoughts. nice review. i think an occasional negative review is expected, but it is hard when there is an expectation that the book should have been better, at least, a better experience.


Kristopher A. Denby said...

I've never read Brooks, but my dad didn't have very good things to say about his stuff. Neither did another friend of mine that I share tastes with. I will probably continue to steer clear of the Shannarra stuff unless something crazy happens.

I do agree with you about Rothfuss, though. He gave me another reason, besides Tolkien, to love fantasy.

The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

logankstewart said...

@Abbie: Aye, the Voyage series was really cool, especially the airships! Terry Brooks is certainly dependable.

@L: I feel ya. I guess we all may have comfort reads. At least I know I'm not the only one.

@Kris: Brooks is a polarizing author for sure. Many people are turned off because his early books are very heavily Tolkien-infused, and this lack of originality is off-putting. However, I think Brooks is a great author to introduce new fantasy readers to the genre, or someone looking for a nostalgic feeling.

Three cheers for Rothfuss!

Okie said...

Thanks for the review Logan. I have also been a stalwart Brooks fan in spite of many "fantasy" nay-sayers. I too can agree that his methods are often repetitive and predictable. But part of me just wants to retort with the "if it ain't broke..." mentality.

Even though the overall plot arc have so much similarity, I have a lot of fun getting to know a new set of characters (as his books are very character driven) and thinking about different social ideologies.

I'm currently only midway through the Genesis series, but Black Staff is waiting patiently for its turn.

I think a lot of my fandom is due to nostalgia and my own history with Brooks, but at the same time I really appreciate the quality of his writing for what it is. He may not be doing things that are revolutionary to the genre per se, but his books are both thoughtful and comforting and I really enjoy them.

logankstewart said...

@Okie: Right there with ya, friend. "His books are both thoughtful and comforting." Completely agree. Enjoy the rest of the Genesis series.