The Rise and Fall of Shannara: The Last Druid by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks published The Sword of Shannara to tremendous success in 1977. Alongside Stephen R. Donaldson, and backed by Judy-Lynn and Lester Del Rey, he filled the J.R.R. Tolkien-sized hole that had subsisted through the early ’70s, and helped reinvigorate the epic fantasy market. Even with all this success, however, it would have been a stretch to imagine that over 40 years later, Brooks would still be writing Shannara novels, and they’d still be selling like hot cakes.

Shannara is one of the most prolific and longest-running continuous fantasy series ever, but the release of The Last Druid, which concludes the ominously titled Fall of Shannara series, marks its conclusion. One of the series’s defining features is that it takes place over thousands of years, switching to a new generation of heroes every few books, and Brooks, now in his mid-70s, decided it was time to wrap things up by bringing the series to a chronological conclusion. After thousands of pages, Brooks is finally pulling together his various strings into a climatic conclusion that answers many of the series’ longest standing questions.

It can be daunting to approach a series as big as Shannara, that’s been running for over 40 years, but Brooks has actually made it extremely easy to get into the series. While there’s a high-level overarching narrative that all the books feed into, especially in the latter half, the Shannara series is actually split into several smaller sub-series, ranging from standalone books like The Sword of Shannara to four-book series, like The Fall of Shannara. While they all work as standalones, and can easily be picked up by new readers (just make sure you’re starting with the first book in the cycle) some make for better entry points that others. Here’s what I’d recommend.

The Sword of Shannara or The Elfstones of Shannara

These are Brooks’ first two books—the ones that launched the Shannara series and rocketed Brooks to superstardom. The Sword of Shannara is the very first novel in the series, but does come across as derivative and trope-y in 2020, which is why I often recommend The Elfstones of Shannara to new readers. It’s Brooks’ best work, and offers his trademark adventurous fantasy wrapped around a chillingly effective personal journey with a heartbreaking ending.

The Heritage of Shannara

While the first three Shannara books were dedicated standalones, The Heritage of Shannara is a four-book series that tells a continuous story. It’s darker than much of the Shannara series, and lauded by many of Brooks’ fans as his most epic work. The first book ends with the main cast of characters diverging onto their own paths, and the following two books focuses on the adventure of a single travelling party, before all the storylines collide again in the final volume. It’s a pure, self-contained epic fantasy that typifies the type of heroic stories that dominated the genre in the early 90s. The first book is The Scions of Shannara, and it concludes with The Talismans of Shannara.

The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara

This trilogy is the start of one of Shannara’s most prominent and thematically powerful narratives. The Ilse Witch’s story plays out over the course of the next several series, finally reaching its conclusion with this latest release. Ilse Witch begins the trilogy with the story of a cross-oceanic journey, and ties together the older-style Shannara adventure, with the more technologically-advanced style that defines the series’s later books. It’s worth reading, along with the books that follow chronologically, just for the epic journey of Grianne Ohmsford. The first book is Ilse Witch, and it concludes with Morgawr.

The Genesis of Shannara

Perhaps Brooks’ most unique take on epic fantasy, Armageddon’s Children and its sequels, The Elves of Cintra and Gypsy Morph, are set in a post-apocalyptic version of Seattle, WA, which also happens to be a pre-history precursor to his Shannara series. Throughout the main series, beginning as far back as The Sword of Shannara, Brooks has dropped hints about The Great War that destroyed the planet’s scientifically-advanced civilization—leaving the dregs of a world behind, which would eventually evolve into his fantasy world, The Four Lands. This trilogy tells the story of The Great Wars, and shows us firsthand how our world was destroyed, paving the way for the Shannara series. The post-apocalyptic nature of Brooks’s world is one of the series’s most compelling aspects, and it’s at its most striking in this trilogy. This trilogy also directly ties Shannara into Brooks’s brilliant urban fantasy trilogy, The Word & Void.

The End of Shannara: The Last Druid

All of that brings us to The Last Druid, the chronological end to Shannara. It’s a little hard to believe, even as I hold a copy in my hand, that a story that’s been part of my life for 25 years, is over. Shannara has been a bumpy ride over those years, with the overall quality of the series ebbing-and-flowing (from the brilliant fantasies I recommended as starting points above, to some of the flatter entries I haven’t mentioned), but taken as a whole, Shannara is nothing short of remarkable.

As the Skaar Invasion of The Four Lands reaches a crescendo, young Tarsha Kaynin must wield the might of the wishsong to free her mentor, the druid Drisker Arc, from the Forbidding, a demonic alternate dimension. Meanwhile, an orphan carrying the ominous name of Shea Ohmsford joins Ajin D’Amphere, a Skaar princess, Darcon Leah, the High Druid’s Blade, the wielder of the blue elfstones, Brecon Elessedil, and a crew of Rovers on a journey deep into the heart of the Skaar homeland as they seek to put an end to the climate change that has destroyed the nation. The Last Druid is a thrilling conclusion to The Fall of Shannara series that offers some of Brooks’s best character writer, though it’s missing the climactic scope of some of his earlier work.

Shannara took an interesting turn starting with 2000’s Ilse Witch, the first volume in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy. It kicked off a new generation of Shannara that was more invested in telling an overarching story connecting its various sub-series. This is when Shannara more directly began tackled its core theme of magic versus technology, and it also introduced readers to the titular Isle Witch, Grianne Ohmsford. From that point forward, Shannara became her story, and The Last Druid brings it to a close.

The first two volumes in The Fall of Shannara, The Black Elfstone and The Skaar Invasion, were some of Brooks’s best in recent years, bringing to mind the scope of his earlier work, as multiple storylines intertwined. I suggested in my review of The Black Elfstone that Brooks had regained some of the epic scope that was missing from the series (with a few exceptions) for most of the past 20 years. The third volume, The Steihl Assassin was a disappointment, lacking in critical plot development or surprises as the players moved into place for the concluding volume, but it still left me feeling excited for what was coming when Brooks wrapped up the Shannara series with The Last Druid.

The Last Druid proves a satisfying conclusion to the story that started with Ilse Witch. Grianne Ohmsford’s growth and evolution over the course of the past 20 years has been beautiful to experience, and Brooks has handled it with patience and immense empathy. Brooks set up a lot of various storylines throughout the first three volumes, and brings each of them to reasonable ends, even if I’d have liked their conclusions to be more intertwined, instead of occurring independently of one another. Most importantly, though, the characters we met in The Black Elfstone grew and changed in interesting ways that drove the plot forward. I had genuine goosebumps as I reached my final pages with characters like Tarsha Kaynin, Shea Ohmsford, and Belladrin Rish.

But in many ways, and despite its larger scope and complexity than most of Brooks’s work over the past two decades, where The Last Druid succeeds as a conclusion to The Fall of Shannara series, and the larger narrative following Grianne Ohmsford, it falls flat and lacks ambition as a conclusion to the Shannara saga in its entirety.

My major criticism of Shannara over the years has been that Brooks is too predictable, and each new series was filled with the character archetypes going on similar quests and resolving conflicts using the same magical macguffins—from the wishsong to the elfstones. However, reading The Last Druid, I found myself wishing Brooks had been in greater conversation with his earliest works and the series as a whole. The confrontation of self truths in The Sword of Shannara, or The Elfstone of Shannara’s exploration of self confidence. I would have liked to have seen Brooks explore what would happen if someone like the Warlock Lord, the villain in the very first book, tried to rise in a world dominated by the Federation’s political might and science—and what would happen if they failed to defeat such evil? I wanted to see a roguish Ohmsford plundering the ruins of Tyrsis for the Sword of Shannara. What if an evil or politically corrupt Druid Order succeeded, instead of being foiled time-and-again by an Ohmsford heir? How would that look? The Federation was established as a tyrannical order during The Heritage of Shannara, but by the series’s end is allowed to keep its monopolistic hold on The Four Lands, un-interrogated and un-impeded. If science is the enemy of magic and spiritualism—what does this say about The Four Lands that the Elves and Dwarves, the Trolls, and Gnomes are left to the sidelines in its final, climatic confrontation? Why does this world with a complex social, cultural, and political history keep having to rely on children to save it? These are the sorts of themes and ideas I was hoping to see explored. These are the types of things that would keep conversation with the series’s earliest questions, while recontexutalizing them in the mold of what Shannara’s become.

Brooks has filled the latter Shannara books with progressive themes and characters—he tackles climate change, writes casts full of complex, active women, and inclusive casts, empathetically examines mental health, and frowns upon the totalitarian tendencies of the human Federation—but his ultimate answer (for if The Fall of Shannara is the end, this is what we’re left with) feels like a regressive restoration of the status quo. For a series that’s focused so heavily on change for the entirety of its duration, I was disappointed not to see Brooks analyze how he’s changed over the years. 2012’s The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy did this by revisiting the themes and plot elements of Brooks’s best book, The Elfstones of Shannara, and reexamining them through the lens of a changed world—both his fictional Four Lands, and our own—and it succeeded as one of Brooks’s most thematically complex and successful narratives. I wanted The Fall of Shannara to do this for the whole series, to critically deconstruct how the Four Lands has changed through the advance of science and the Federation, but instead, as the final word falls on the series, Brooks leaves readers in a place they’ve been many times before: Watching the Federation continue its march toward inevitable domination, the Elves and their magic fading, and the fate of the Druid Order left hanging.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to judge a book by what I wanted it to be, rather than what it is, but, as fans, that’s what we do. A book is a relationship between the reader and the text. Between the reader and the author. And every series, every book, is a different experience for each reader. Bringing something to a conclusive end means I can no longer wonder what’s to come, I can no longer contextualize my curiosities about what might happen next. I can only look back, and notice all the strings left dangling, and ask myself whether the ones tied up nicely fit what I hoped the series would be when I first started it. Whether it’s better or worse than what I expected.

So, I’m of a few minds here. As a standalone series, The Fall of Shannara is epic, complex, and features some of Brooks’s finest thematic explorations. As a conclusion to the story that started with Ilse Witch, it works well, providing a satisfying climax and believable closure to Brooks’s greatest character. As a conclusion to the entire Shannara series, it feels a little flat, like it’s lost touch with themes and ideas explored in its earliest volume. At I see it, there are two Shannaras: Pre-Grianne Ohmsford, and post-Grianne Ohmsford—and the latter failed over time to ever capture the magic of the former.

But even with this uncertainty, there is one thing I believe wholeheartedly: Shannara is one fantasy’s greatest achievements. It’s longevity and ambition should be acknowledged. When Brooks was at his best, his novels sing with a clear, hopeful voice that reminds us all of why we read epic fantasy in the first place.

The Last Druid is available from Del Rey.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of “On the Phone with Goblins” and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and a regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink and Patreon.

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