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Book Review: Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks

Genre: Epic Fantasy
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: August 24, 2010
ISBN-10: 0345484177
ISBN-13: 978-0345484178
Author Website: Terry Brooks

Bearers of the Black Staff is…well…a Terry Brooks novel. But what does that mean you ask? Well, simply put, if you liked Terry Brooks before, you’ll likely enjoy this first book in the Legends of Shannara series, and if you haven’t read Brooks before, then this is very much indicative of what you can expect from the pen of this New York Times bestselling author in his latter years. But for the discerning fan of epic fantasy, you’ll leave this volume wondering why you spent a chunk of change on so many words where nothing exciting happens.

Bearers of the Black Staff begins 500 years after the boy Hawk and his followers had moved into a secluded and protected valley to escape the ravages of the world devastation wreaked by our current technological society. (see the Genesis of Shannara series for their story) But whatever it is (not explained in this book) that has been maintaining the grey cloud that kept outsiders out and insiders in is failing. The world outside, and whatever mutants or horrors survived the last 500 years is about to enter the secluded valley that had protected the humans, elves, spiders and lizards that are the comatose and complacent descendants of Hawk’s followers.

The story followers three characters primarily. The first is the Gray Man, Sider Ament, a solitary person charged with bearing the black staff and patrolling the wall, waiting for the day it fails. There is Panterra Qu, a scout paired with the girl Pru who is driven by fierce loyalty and who is the child become a man character that is part and parcel of every Terry Brooks novel. And there is Phryne, the elven princess who is brash and reckless who becomes a woman that is indicative of every Terry Brooks novel. It is these three, with the help of some others, who must protect the land from being conquered by an army of trolls from outside the valley.

In this novel, Brooks has not overexerted himself in his writing. Though there is character development, the characters come across as flat, not emotionally connected to the reader. Sure, the reader may appreciate their successes or dangers, but as far as getting excited about them, it is rather hard to do with the way Brooks writes. It is like looking at an abstract work of art when you have no frame of reference for appreciating it. You know it should be good, or that you should feel something about it emotionally, but all you can do is look at it and say: Huh? This is usually the end effect of writing archetypes rather than characters, something Brooks has always done to some extent, but which is made so painfully obvious here.

The plot follows a pattern that he has perfected, following a young person (or several persons) as he or she find himself or herself in the trials and tribulations presented by their environment. It is not even resolved by the end of the novel, being left to the sequel (or sequels) to do. And cliffhanger in no way left me gasping to read more. The characters move in and out of the valley, sometimes in bizarre ways, and Brooks will change perspective in odd places, and add meaningless sequences just to ensure that he mentions things like elfstones and other Shannara specific elements. The novel has some action and adventure in it, and certainly has suspense (though none that really makes the reader feel it, except perhaps for Pru’s near death experiences there at the end). Yet undoubtedly, those who have been long time readers of the Shannara series will appreciate the addition to the cannon uncritically.

It is also a good entrance point for readers who did not (like myself) choose to read Brooks urban fantasy novels, or even the Genesis of Shannara, preferring instead the orginal tales, which were much more epic in their fantasy. Set 500 years after the destruction of our Earth, the world of this story is more akin to Wishsong of Shannara and Elfstones of Shannara than its recent predecessors. It is very much possible to read this novel without having read what goes before, as Brooks does enough back story building to be sure you are comfortable with the world, and it is set far enough in the future from those events that the reader can feel like they are reading a separate story. Of course, having read the earlier books will make Bearers of the Black Staff that sweeter in the reading.

Brooks does make a villain out of organized religion, and the Children of the Hawk religion is a quite thinly veiled attempt to poke the eye of monotheistic (particularly Christian) religions. Even the story of a savior who will return and save the Children is obviously borrowed from Christianity. Now, there would be nothing wrong with this per se, if Brooks did not make the characters representing this religion slimy, snake oil salesman villains who are going to end up being the real reason for the destruction of the people in the valley, rather than the horde of trolls on their doorstep. It was such a thinly veiled opinion of the author, and was distracting from the story as a whole, even as it was designed to be one of the conflicts of the novel.

Bearers of the Black Staff just isn’t that great a piece of fiction. I loved the original Shannara series, loved Heritage of Shannara, liked The Voyage of Jerle Shannara, and laugh uproariously at the Landover tales, but Bearers of the Black Staff is just slapdash storytelling that does not belong with the aforementioned. It is a poor showing from a Brooks. It seems he knows that he can write a smarmy, simplistic, unoriginal tale because he is going to sell lots of copies based on prior reputation and fan base. So why work hard at being original or at least exciting? Uncritical eyes will likely love the novel, but discerning fans of the genre will see it for its value as scratch paper for the real artists. Brooks is just punching the clock, ticking off the “to-do” list without striving for the excellence of talespinning of which he was once capable.