Many of you who were hooked on fantasy by The Lord of the Rings can probably understand my relationship with the writings of Terry Brooks. His original Sword of Shannara was a very direct riff on The Lord of the Rings, and it can be argued served to reassure a generation of fantasy readers that there were books worth reading after The Return of the King. Shannara has had its ups and downs over the years, with original entries in the perpetual series, and less compelling ones. Running with the Demon provided the genesis for the running joke that Brooks is unable to write anything but Shannara anymore, after what started as a fresh, new, and interesting trilogy became a massive Shannara prologue.
When I read that Brooks was done with Shannara after his Fall of Shannara series, and was working on something new and non-Shannara, I was therefore skeptical, but intrigued. Perhaps the only notable non-Shannara works he has published are The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was my hope that Child of Light would tap into whatever had enabled Landover. Unfortunately, my hopes were misplaced, and Child of Light proved to be anything but fresh.
Oh, it’s not officially a Shannara story, at least not yet, but it might as well be. It has the same themes, the same world-building elements, the same kinds of characters. I don’t just mean in the sense that it follows a story archetype, like the hero’s journey – I mean granular level, world-building and character details. The Sylvans are pretty much the elves; they are fae creatures hiding from the human world and convinced that anything industrial is evil, but magic that accomplishes the exact same things is perfectly acceptable (flame throwers bad, magic staffs that allow you to throw blue fire good). A dystopian human society has allied with the conniving goblins in an undeclared war with the other fae creatures, who have hidden themselves away behind magic wards and barriers.
Even had those elements all been new and original, though, Child of Light would have been difficult to enjoy. Its protagonist, to whom we are subjected in first person present tense, comes across as inconsistent, which is a fatal flaw in character creation. She is by turns emotionally scattered, immature, hyper-focused, forgiving, vengeful…and my dislike for her is not helped by the odd viewpoint. Every author, I suspect, goes through a phase where he or she thinks “hey, let me experiment with writing something in the first person present tense, because it will totally help make the story more compelling and draw my readers in.” I’ve had this thought, and even tried writing that way, but there are very good reasons why very few books get published that way. It’s hard to read and hard to follow. I don’t blame Brooks for trying this experiment, but I do blame him for actually publishing a story written in such a way.
In the interest of fairness, and because I really don’t enjoy writing negative reviews, it’s not like this book was bad. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made me want to stop reading it. Perhaps the best descriptor would be innocuous. As an author, it was interesting how many times I found myself hoping that the story would go in a very interesting direction, and then it didn’t, choosing the more banal option every time. It hummed along, with a seasoning of action sequences, a dash of character scenes, and a sprinkling of world-building, but there was no compelling climax, no satisfying resolution, no stand up and cheer moments for the characters. Each mystery was resolved in the most obvious way, with no twists or turns that I didn’t foresee. Maybe it’s just that I’ve read too many Brooks books. It makes me wonder if, had this been billed as a new Shannara book set in a different era, I might have actually enjoyed it more. Or, alternatively, if someone who was not as familiar with the rest of Terry Brooks’ works might find it more interesting.
I have long considered myself a faithful Brooks reader. I think I have read every Shannara book he’s pushed out, all of the Landover books, even his surprisingly good adaptation of The Phantom Menace. There is a sequel projected for Child of Light: it might be the first Terry Brooks book that I choose not to read. The only real question for the sequel is: how will it end up tied into the rest of Shannara?