Warning: this post contains spoilers for The Stiehl Assassin, and other books in Terry Brooks’s Fall of Shannara series
In the previous two books in this series, a lot of time was spent bringing players into place and setting up introductions. There is plenty of action, but it all retains a fairly light touch – there is a sense that, although things are happening and changes are occurring, nothing really major has changed yet, and anything that has changed is not necessarily permanent. This is common in series, when you start to look at them holistically; it takes time and words to put all of the characters into the places they need to be for the plot to start really picking up. With The Stiehl Assassin, the plot definitely accelerates.
The second books ends on a complete cliffhanger – one of the main characters is actually stabbed on the last page, and you have to read the first chapter of this book to find out that it was really just a magically projected image of that person that was stabbed. It certainly does drive you into the next book, although I personally tend to prefer series in which each novel has something of its own, self-contained arc. In that sense, there are some series that I think really ought to be published as one long book, based on the way the plotting works, but I know that’s not the way most people approach such things.
When we reviewed The Black Elfstone, I talked about how one of the great things about Shannara is how there is so much in-world history and world-building over the course of all of the previous novels and series that Brooks can draw from when writing new stories. Done wrong, that can feel like unnecessary “Easter eggs” for the fan base, or like a plug-and-play setup (remember Ohmsford+Druid+Leah=Shannara?), but done right it makes for an incredibly rich storytelling experience. For the first two books in the series, I would say (and did say) that you could probably read The Fall of Shannara without having read other Shannara books. While still technically true, the arrival of a certain not-shade of a past Druid in The Stiehl Assassin added a wholly new, unexpected wrinkle to the plot, and made me glad that I’ve read all of the other Shannara books.
In fact, for a long-term Shannara reader (or at least for this long-term Shannara reader), the reintroduction of Grainne Ohmsford, returned from banishment beyond the Forbidding through the portal of the Hadeshorne, adds a tension backing the entire rest of the book that wasn’t there before. Without that knowledge, it’s a good story, and I imagine that there will be an unexpected twist in the fourth book relating to this. With that knowledge, you go through the whole story questioning every decision and mentally imploring the characters to worry more about the implications of that single interaction.
This installment in the series continues making the Skaar the most interesting player in the Four Lands, even though Ajin takes on a much less prominent role. Even though it’s hard to sympathize too much with the invaders, they are so much more competent (without being overly competent, if that makes sense) than everyone else that I almost felt that they deserved to win. It is made clear by this book that their main advantage is not Ajin’s brilliance, or their ability to turn themselves invisible, but the way that they wage warfare, particularly information warfare. Compared to the Skaar, the nations of the Four Lands might as well not have military intelligence apparatuses.
All of which is to say: I’m now caught up, and eagerly anticipating the release of the next and final book in this series. And, if Terry Brooks is to be believed, the final book in the Shannara chronology. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend digging into Shannara soon.