Terry Brooks's most recent entry in the Shannara series, The Measure of the Magic, is still on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list as of this writing (though perhaps not of this posting, depending on when I get around to putting it up -- don't want to post 10 times in one day and then none for the next week, you know). For the record, I bought it at a heavily-reduced price from the Science Fiction Book Club.
If you truly enjoy Brooks's other Shannara books, I suggest you stop reading this review right now because The Measure of the Magic is more of the same and my comments will probably make your brain hurt (like this book made my brain hurt -- seriously, I've had terrible headaches for three days, though I suppose it could be my sinuses and not this book). If you're like me, and think Brooks is a hack, then read on. (Regular readers of this blog may remember that I've placed the Shannara series on my Worst Fantasy Series list.)
Okay, here goes the review, in no particular order of topics, just whatever comes to my mind first.
This book is pretty short, a 384-page hardcover (at least in the book club edition). Fantasy readers these days are no strangers to 800-page plus books (Steven Erikson, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, George R.R. Martin, Tad Williams, and many others, are known for producing dictionary-length tomes). The preceding volume, Bearers of the Black Staff, was even shorter, at 353 pages (again in a book club hardcover edition). I think these two volumes easily could have been combined into one, especially since Measure is a direct continuation of events in Bearers. I guess Del Rey couldn't have gotten their $27 for each book that way, though. I'd feel cheated if I'd paid full price for either of them.
On the other hand, I don't know if I could've taken reading 737 pages of Terry Brooks straight through. I didn't start reading his books until Armageddon's Children was out, and though I went through them in order of publication, I had to take frequent breaks.
All right, so I've mentioned the length, but what did I think about the story? Well, be forewarned that there are many spoilers in here, because I really don't think it's possible evaluate the book without giving away large segments of the plot. So here goes.
Improbable prison breaks (a Brooks mainstay): Phryne Amarantyne, the Elven princess, has been framed for killing her father. She sits in a storage room under guard, only being brought food, having her chamber pot emptied, etc. Then a 10- or 11-year-old boy (Xac Wen) pretends to be a serving girl, and sneaks her out, with hardly any trouble at all. Apparently he drugged the guard's ale. (Who is letting prison guards drink on the job? When they are watching someone accused of murder?) Aislinne Kray, framed for freeing the Troll Arik Siq and killing his guards, is rescued by Brickey, who also has drugged the guard. (Granted, it's a different guard -- human, not elf -- but it's kind of sad to see the exact same plot device twice like this, in the same short book.)
Deus ex machina: Here comes the King of the Silver River to save the day again. One of the young heroes (or heroine, in this case, since it's Prue) is in a desperate situation and is just whisked away in the nick of time, given some valuable information, and sent back into the world to exactly the place where she wants to be.
Evil bad guys: The Ragpicker is a demon of the sort that we started seeing in the Word and the Void books, and that continued through the Genesis of Shannara series. Just an evil guy who steals the bodies of others, kills individuals at whim, plots to kill armies and whole city populations, can resist damage from most weapons, has incredible powers of persuasion, and sings some pretty awful songs. Kinda like Morg in The Reluctant Mage (minus the songs), which I reviewed a few days ago. He's so powerful, and so evil, and then he's just defeated very easily by Panterra. But the main problem with the Ragpicker as a villain is that, as a non-human, it's hard to grasp his motivation. It seems like his motivation is just "Let's see how evil I can be." If he was human, we could say he was mentally ill or some such. This villain is so bad he's comical.
Skeal Eile (which I happen to think is a pretty dumb name, but I digress), as the leader of the Children of the Hawk cult, almost has a good motivation. He wants to spread his message and have every person as a follower. He wants power, and as a human, at least we have a hope of understanding his mind. But I'm just not feeling it with him. I suppose he could be seen as a mouthpiece, someone who uses religion to back his arguments while not believing it himself. I just don't see much of that side of him in this book; he's been pretty set against Panterra for awhile now, even ordered him killed in the last book, and again in this volume, and the only time when he tries to do any religious persuading is when he visits the usurper Elf Queen Iseold, who has not held up her end of a bargain to allow him to proselytize to the elves. Even though he hired the assassin who killed her husband for her, and who framed her stepdaughter Phryne. He's fairly one-dimensional as well, and his end is rather sudden when the demon takes over his body.
Brooks should really stick to writing about individuals or small groups, and not deal with armies and villages. I still have no idea, after having read both Bearers and Measure, how big the town of Glensk Wood actually is. We are introduced to a few individuals, and know by extension of the existence of the others, but in the final scene where most of the inhabitants, on the march out of the valley, are slaughtered by the Troll army, it's just really unclear on how many people are dead. There are apparently enough left to move back to the village and start anew, and conveniently it's primarily people the heroes don't know, who have been killed. The battle scenes with the Orullian brothers are hard to follow; at one minute they're making what seems to be an ill-fated last stand down on the battlefield and at the next minute they're back, unscathed, talking calmly to Xac Wen. I think I'm glad Brooks doesn't spend even more time on battles, though, because I think it would be unbearable.
Lack of realism: There are apparently a whole lot of people who are Trackers. With a capital "T." I am really at a loss as to what the hell these people track. Or why there need to be so many of them. I would think, in a place where people farm and live in small villages and so forth, that a lot of them know the surrounding countryside fairly well. And can hunt and such for themselves. Obviously Tracking provides Pan and Prue skills they will need when the valley is invaded. But remember, the people have been living in this valley for hundreds of years without danger. So again, why such a large number of Trackers? And what do they do to justify their continued employment? (Kind of like having Richard be a woods guide at the beginning of Wizard's First Rule seemed silly to me. But I digress. Again.)
I mentioned the King of the Silver River and how he gives Prue valuable information, but what I didn't mention yet was that Prue has to agree to sacrifice something in order to help Pan. Of course, she agrees. And her big sacrifice? Going color blind. And then whining about her inability to see colors for most of the rest of the book. And how she won't see the red color of her hair anymore. (Seriously, there are too many gingers in fantasy novels. Let's consider their proportions in light of actual human populations...) All four of my dad's brothers are color blind, and they do just fine. Granted, having always been that way, they don't know what they're missing, but still, as a sacrifice, going color blind is laughable. At least Prue really goes blind at the end of the book.
In earlier novels in this series, it was hinted at that the Shannara world was our own, at some far future date, after the collapse of civilization as we know it. We see that again here; there are guns, and solar-powered vehicles, which still work, though I don't know where Deladion Inch was getting replacement parts for them. But when Prue is fleeing the Trolls and the demon through Inch's fortress, we see descriptions of things which are supposed to represent modern technology. I suppose it's possible that Terry Brooks is still using CD-ROMs and cathode ray tube monitors, but it's kind of laughable that those are his examples of technology. (Flat screen monitors and USB flash drives aren't as easily described, though. And Brooks will really be out of material when cloud technology takes off!) Even when the book is new, this is outdated.
I find myself grasping at straws to find something nice to say about this book. Here are two things, weak though they are: (1) The first sentence is not as awful as in Bearers of the Black Staff (there are a few good sentences here and there, actually, though it's hit or miss with the language). (2) Phryne's behavior in the last half of the book is actually complex; she sleeps with Panterra, then is a bit capricious about it but hey, she's a teen girl and she's under stress, and then it's nice that the dragon she rides (another bit of deus ex machina but at least set up in the previous volume) isn't easily controlled. (Although, Brooks has used the building up of a romance between an Elf princess and a human boy before, and then shot it down. So this aspect of the plot is recycled, as well.)
I could go on, but I'd rather go read something else than keep complaining about a book I knew at the outset wouldn't be that great. Maybe Terry Brooks is the one laughing; after all, he keeps making the New York Times bestseller list, producing stuff like this. If you're a Brooks fan, you're going to read this anyway, and if you're not, I hope I provided you with a few chuckles, at least.
Last, but not least, sorry for all the weird little white boxes after links to Amazon products; I used to have no trouble when I used the widget, but now that I have to do links by hand, from the Associates Central website, there are issues. Which is also why the cover image appears at the bottom instead of the top of this review (I seem not to be able to make text wrap anymore).