Note: Some plot spoilers like ahead!
When it comes to the giants of fantasy, Terry Brooks is right up there with the greats. His book The Sword of Shannara, as well as the sprawling series that it spawned, helped nudge fantasy into the realm of financially viable genre rather than an idle curiosity. Now, 40-odd years later, we are coming to the chronological end of the Shannara saga, and the Four Lands stand on the precipice of catastrophe. The Skaar have invaded and are engaged in a tense standoff with the powerful Federation. However, new Ard Rhys Drisker Arc has a plan to (hopefully) avert the all-out war that seems inevitable, but to see it to completion he must enlist the aid of the Kaynin siblings, the boy Shea Ohmsford, the warrior Dar Leah, and the Elven prince Brecon Elessedil. Even then, his efforts might yet be thwarted by the villainous Druid Clizia Porse, who wants to see the Druid Order remade under her own aegis.
The novel moves at an amazingly brisk pace, drawing you along for the ride and leaving you a little breathless at the end. For all of that, the characters (as Shannara characters always do) still have a little time to live and breathe, to bring us into their own inner lives. And, unlike some fantasy authors–who only give us the perspectives of the good guys–Brooks gives us both the heroes and the villains. And, let me tell you, he is most definitely not afraid of killing off some significant characters.
In The Stiehl Assassin we also get to see some parts of the world that have remained unexplored. With a few exceptions, most of the stories set in the Shannara universe have taken place in the Four Lands or Four-Lands-adjacent. As part of the company is sent on a specific mission to the land of the Skaar, we get to see some of the lands they encounter along the way. At this point, those revelations have been fascinating but not terribly illuminating, but I have no doubt that will change in the fourth installment (and let’s hope that we actually get to see the land of the Skaar itself!)
Now, as to the villain of the piece: not since Shadea a’Ru have we seen a villain as cunning and cruel as Clizia Porse, a woman willing to sacrifice a great deal on the altar of her own ambition. However, Brooks does a great job of showing us that, beneath the ruthlessness, there is just a glimmer that she is something more than just a villain. She seems to have an idea that, if she is given control of the Druids, that she will be able to make the world a better one than the one she found. Of course, the lengths to which she is willing to go to do that–including acts of truly horrific violence–give the lie to whatever more noble ambitions she might have.
I have to admit that the best part of the novel for me was the appearance of Grianne Ohmsford at the Hadeshorn. Canny readers will recall that she was banished to the Forbidding at the end of the Dark Heritage of Shannara trilogy. Now, it seems that she is angling to find a way back into the Four Lands from which was banished. This, I think, is an eminently good thing for, as many people pointed out at the time, having her banished to the Forbidding seemed an awfully anticlimactic way to resolve her evolution as a character. She’s always been one of Brooks’s most fascinating creations, and I very much look forward to seeing how this storyline wraps up. Considering that, at novel’s end, Drisker has been dispatched by Clizia into the Forbidding, it’s virtually guaranteed that we’ll get to see Grianne in the next book.
What really stood out to me as I read this book, however, was how Brooks has started to expand the range of issues that he is willing to tackle through his fiction. While all of his books have always had deep philosophical themes–particularly focused on the environment–in this new quartet of novels we’ve really seen him diving deep into the question of colonialism. Are the Skaar justified in their invasion, given that their own home has become increasingly uninhabitable as a result of climate change? If not, what should the residents do about it? There are, of course, no easy answers to these questions. As in the real world, so in our best fictions.
The genius of the novel lies in its ability to weave together this larger question with the larger issue of magic vs. science that has been a prime motivator for the plots of many of the previous entries in the Shannara series. Now, it might just be that it is only through a cooperation between these two seemingly opposing forces that the world as it has come to be understood can be saved. Whether it will be successful, or whether the people of the Four Lands and the Skaar will lead each other toward mutual oblivion is still very much up in the air. One thing is for certain, though: nothing about the world that we have come to know and love will ever be the same.
So, now we stand at the brink of the end of an era. While Brooks has said that he will continue writing Shannara books that are set in previous eras, “The Fall of Shannara” will mark the chronological end of the saga. I’m still not sure that I’m ready to say goodbye, but at the very least we can say that it’s been a great run, and we are all very lucky indeed to have had such a great story for so many years. Somehow, by some alchemy, Brooks has managed to do the impossible: to continue making a venerable series as new and interesting and vibrant as it has ever been. For that, Mr. Brooks deserves our gratitude.