How to review “The Sword of Shannara”? How does one even give it a star rating? It bestrides the genre of epic fantasy like a Colossus and yet, in my opinion, is considerably weaker than Brooks’s later work, even as it broke new territory for fantasy and formed the basis for one of the most well-realized fantasy worlds of modern fiction.
So. Yes, it reads a bit like an early test of the pen, especially in comparison with the books from “The Heritage of Shannara,” which I consider to be some of the best fantasy writing out there, bar none. Here in “The Sword of Shannara” we can sense that Brooks is still mastering his craft, still a little too heavily beholden to the shade of Tolkien. Yes, it’s 700+ pages of people running around willy-nilly, with epithets that are so cliched they’re not even a cliche, because who actually writes like that?
But. But, but, but! Brooks is a master storyteller and yarn-spinner, and we see that raw talent on display already. The worldbuilding is incredible, even if it’s not as incredible as the more fleshed-out descriptions we encounter in later books in the series. Even so, with the Four Lands Brooks has created one of the most vivid and compelling secondary worlds in epic fantasy, and making it a post-apocalyptic landscape was a stroke of genius. The characters are, yes, rather similar to characters from LOTR, but they’re still compelling, and in many ways closer and more human than the remoteness of Aragorn or Legolas, for example. And we already see the beginnings of Brooks’s efforts not only to humanize his archetypal characters but to psychologize them as well, with Shea and Menion’s self-reflections. I can’t say that “The Sword of Shannara” is Brooks’s best work (“The Elfstones of Shannara, the next book in the series, is already substantially better from a writerly point of view, and my love of “The Elf Queen of Shannara” knows no bounds), but without it we wouldn’t have the genre of epic fantasy as we currently know it, nor one of its best and longest-lasting series. Anyone who considers themself a fan of epic/high fantasy owes it to themself to read this book and ponder it deeply.