Simon and Schuster
Things aren’t going too well for Grianne Ohmsford, the Ard Rhys of the Druid Order. Her attempts to bring peace and harmony to the Four Lands have (as such attempts often do) met with little success, the rulers of the various realms far more interested in continuing their bloody feuds than bringing about a golden age of prosperity. On top of her political problems, a rather more cold-blooded rival recently dropped her right in the middle of the Forbidding, that cheerful realm that the Demons call home, and took control of the Order for herself. Demons are devious things as everybody knows, so it’s not surprising poor Grianne found herself captured at the end of the last book. Foreign travel, eh?
Meanwhile in the more material world of the Four Lands, Grianne’s nephew Pen has been charged by the ethereal King of the Silver River with retrieving the talisman that will let him enter the Forbidding and rescue his aunt. The new High Druid, Shadea a’Ru, is understandably less than thrilled with the nature of Pen’s quest and has set both the Druids themselves and her shadowy assassin Aphasia Wye on his trail. Together with a handful of allies Pen tries desperately to find the Tanequil before it’s too late, while in the war-torn borderland of the Prekkendorran the totalitarian Federation unveils a terrible new weapon. Things are looking fairly bleak for the freedom-loving citizens of the Four Lands, but one has to keep these heroic types busy somehow. Heaven only knows what they’d get up to otherwise.
As the middle book of an ‘epic’ trilogy, ‘Tanequil’ was always going to have a few pacing problems. Following conventional dramatic form the middle act is the part where the heroes suffer the unrelenting hammer blows of defeat before rising up for a stirring and climatic finale, and this book is nothing but conventional. Unfortunately it’s also as bland as unflavoured porridge, our protagonists’ misfortunes raising not a squeak of interest in the reader. Perhaps it is that we’ve been through this before, in a stream of fantasy quest adventures reaching back through Eddings and dozens of others to ol’ master Tolkien. Everything here has been done already, not least of all by Brooks himself who has made a very successful career out of Tolkien impersonation. This is by-the-numbers fantasy and it’s all so very dull.
When Terry Brooks began the Shannara series it was just what the genre needed. Exciting, well written and epic in scope, it was a joy to read. But like a faded champion in search of past glories it has lingered and what made it special has long since departed. Instead of something new we get a re-hash of old plots and characters where only the names have changed. There’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.
To give the author credit, his writing style is as good as it’s ever been. To a fantasy virgin or someone who is unfamiliar with Brooks’ work ‘Tanequil’ could be entertaining enough, possessing as it does a certain effortless beauty. The descriptions are powerful and the world of the Four Lands is, as ever, an impressive creation. Even the recent addition of high technology such as sunlight-powered airships – something that doesn’t mesh terribly well with the grit and magic of the rest of the setting – can’t spoil that depth. The characters too are convincing, coming with flaws and neuroses built in. The dialogue occasionally stalls and it’s difficult to distinguish between speaking characters by speech patterns alone, but that’s neither here nor there. On the one hand you have the rich Shannara setting, built up over many years and a dozen or so novels, and on the other hand you have… a great vacant hole where the plot should be.
That is ‘Tanequil’s biggest flaw. The entire novel reads like an extended chase scene, with the Druids running along behind Pen Ohmsford like something from a Benny Hill sketch. The interludes with Grianne’s experiences in the Forbidding are something else, showing a spark of originality that the series is otherwise sorely lacking, but they are too few and far between. Only in those scenes does something resembling a plot arise and it is there that the emphasis should have been placed, not – as it sadly is – on the awkward and contrived love story that is Pen’s escape from the Druids.
Hopefully the third book in the trilogy will remedy the many faults of this one, but it certainly has a struggle ahead of it. Considering how slow things have been moving so far, the pace is also going to have to drastically pick up otherwise I can see ‘High Druid of Shannara’ becoming a trilogy of four, ‘Hitch-hiker’s Guide’ style. This series has nothing to recommend it over Shannaras past, and it’s those previous series’ that a newcomer to Brooks’ work should seek out. For the veteran, ‘Tanequil’ will be nothing but a disappointment.
Whether the third book ‘Straken’ can throw a log on the fuel-starved fire of originality remains to be seen, but Brooks certainly has the ability – all he needs now are a few fresh ideas. Until they arrive, ‘Tanequil’ will find a place on my ‘shadow of former glory’ shelf.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com