Grianne Ohmsford, head of the Druid order, still languishes in the dark and demonic world of the Forbidding, but things could be worse. thanks to the strange creature called Weka Dart she is free of the Straken Lord’s dungeons and although she doesn’t know it, her family’s rescue attempt is coming along nicely. Pen Ohmsford has retrieved the talisman he needs to free her, though it has cost him dearly. Now all he must do is return to the Druid keep, where all their enemies lurk, and enter the Forbidding to reclaim her.
Demons and Druids stand in the way of the touching family reunion but really, what could be simpler? If that sounds rather casual, it is because the Ohmsfords have been saving the world for so long now that they barely have to put any effort into it. The first two Shannara series’ were truly epic, rich in character and wonder. By comparison 'Straken' has all the depth of a child’s paddling pool, its characters pale shadows and the tale they inhabit a lifeless corpse. It feels tired, as though the author’s love for his creation has faded to nothing and he now churns out these stories on automatic. The spark of imagination, that special something which made Shannara so popular, has gone out.
Nothing makes that clearer than the repetition that can be found in 'Straken', prison breaks and airship battles used, given a fresh coat of paint, and used again. In contrast the Four Lands, Brooks’ distinctive setting, is barely touched upon. A once marvellous place, in Straken it is cruelly under-represented. What replaces it is wholly mundane, lacking the majesty it once possessed. The demon-world inside the Forbidding, a new location unexplored in previous novels, is similarly wasted. An opportunity to create a place of despair and unforgiving savagery is squandered, the land inside the Forbidding appearing no darker or more dangerous than a stroll in the park. This is a place to which creatures of dark magic and evil intent were banished, yet in Brooks’ hands it seems dull and unthreatening.
Straken is not a bad novel - it is simply bland and uninspiring. The fantasy genre is saturated with poor imitations of Brooks’ work, and this book somehow feels like one of them. There is nothing that stands out, either for damnation or praise, yet the author’s reputation ensures it will sell. A shame, when so many fresh and original works will be overlooked. Brooks has shown he is a writer of talent and imagination, yet both seem to have deserted him here. The reader turns the last page with ambivalence, caring little for shallow characters and the limited growth granted them by an unadventurous narrative. Perhaps it is time Shannara was allowed to rest?
Whether it will or not is another question. The end of the novel feels rushed, incomplete, and several plot threads are left frustratingly untied. Perhaps Brooks is planning to make ‘High Druid of Shannara’ a four book series? If not, certain subplots within ‘Straken’ are rendered mysteriously pointless. A shame, because their intricacies were more engaging than the main story itself, little gems amid the dross. A dragon; the fate of Weka Dart; even the Straken Lord himself, built up in the preceding novel and unforgivably sidelined here. All saved for another time? I hope so, just as I hope to see Brooks regain his old form. It wouldn’t do for another book to join ‘Straken’ on my ‘Big disappointment’ shelf, would it?
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com