I don’t often post reviews here. Usually, when I do, it’s because I’ve come across something that surprised me in some way, that exceeded my expectations. Something that I find I want to call to people’s attention.
This time, it’s a TV series: The Shannara Chronicles.
The Sword of Shannara was a fantasy novel by Terry Brooks, first released in 1977. At the time, the American commercial market had not yet “discovered” the epic-fantasy genre. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings had attained considerable success, after some backing and filling in the 1960s involving an unauthorized American edition. Kathryn Kurtz published Deryni Rising in 1970, and Stephen Donaldson published Lord Foul’s Bane in 1977 as well. Still, it was Brooks’ debut novel that really cracked the door open for the genre. With an engaging plot aimed at younger readers, and illustrations by the Brothers Hildebrandt, The Sword of Shannara rocketed onto the best-seller lists. For the first time, we saw that someone not named Tolkien could attain significant commercial success in the genre. The book made Brooks’ career – as of 2016, he’s written dozens of novels, many of which have again made the best-seller lists, the vast majority of them set in the Shannara universe.
I was one of those who read The Sword of Shannara when it was first released: a twelve-year-old kid who was just discovering fantasy fiction, exactly the audience that Brooks found most congenial. At the time it was one of my favorites. Today, I have to admit that the story hasn’t aged well for me. Sword in particular is enormously derivative of Tolkien. Although plot and characters have moments of originality, the list of elements mapping directly to The Lord of the Rings is extremely long. The early Brooks certainly had a literate prose style, but he wasn’t very concise, and he kept succumbing to the temptation to write really long expository passages.
Okay, it was a debut novel, and many a new genre writer has had to find his voice by imitating his predecessors. Even the second novel in the series was much more original, and I understand Brooks has long since come to stand on his own as a genre writer. In any case, someone who has written as much outright fan fiction as I have can’t afford to throw too many stones!
Still. I read the first two sequels upon release . . . but then I lost track of the series and didn’t feel motivated to seek it out. A couple of years ago, I was actually rather surprised to discover just how many Shannara novels have been written, flying entirely under my radar.
I therefore had no reason to search out The Shannara Chronicles. Blame this review on a bad case of insomnia, which had me up very late the other night with nothing to do but browse Netflix on my tablet. A familiar name caught my eye, I tapped it open, and holy cow. An hour later, I caught myself thinking: That . . . was actually not at all bad.
The first season of The Shannara Chronicles was released on MTV early this year. It consists of ten hour-long episodes, which constitute a rather loose adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara, the second novel in the series. (I understand someone else is sitting on the rights to The Sword of Shannara, which means we may never get to see an adaptation of it. A few characters and plot elements from Sword do appear in the TV series.) The entire season is now available on Netflix.
The early Shannara books are bog-standard epic fantasy: we have a set of Five Races, mysterious wizard mentors, evil sorcerers, magic artifacts, epic quests, hopeless battles, the lot. One interesting and original point is that the setting, the “Four Lands,” is not positioned in some alternate world or the Earth’s distant past. Instead, we’re looking at a future Earth, thousands of years after a nuclear-biological-chemical holocaust that nearly destroyed all human life. Geography has changed beyond recognition, humanity has diverged into several subspecies, and ancient magic has come back into the world once again. Still, travelers in the Four Lands often come across relics of industrial-era technology and lore. This theme is apparently more prevalent in the later Shannara novels, and it’s been back-filled into this adaptation of an earlier novel in the series.
The story here is not nearly as derivative as in Sword. Tens of thousands of years ago, long before humanity spread across the Earth for the first time, a great army of Demons was sealed away into a hellish plane known as the Forbidding. The seal on the Forbidding was held in place by a magical tree, the Ellcrys, which has ever since been in the care of the Elves. Now the Ellcrys is dying, and a few of the most powerful Demons have already escaped the Forbidding. When the tree dies completely, it will release all of the Demons to destroy the living world. Before that happens, one of the tree’s Elven guardians must take its last seed to a magic-source called the Bloodfire, to grant the Ellcrys rebirth.
Wil Ohmsford is the son (grandson in the original novel) of the hero of Sword. The Druid Allanon pulls him into the struggle, as the last surviving scion of an ancient Elven lineage and its magical legacies. While Allanon helps to defend the Elven kingdom, Wil travels with the Elf-princess Amberle and a human girl named Eritrea to find the Bloodfire. Along the way, they are helped and hindered by a diverse cast of humans, Elves, Gnomes, Trolls, and supernatural creatures. Wil must learn to control his magical inheritance, while struggling with his increasingly complicated feelings for both Amberle and Eritrea.
The adaptation of the novel’s plot is fairly close (Brooks himself has stated that he’s happy with the adaptation). The dialogue is much more colloquial than in the novel; characters speak more naturally and use slang expressions. There’s more graphic violence – bloody wounds are shown, and there are a lot of character deaths which involve a great deal of blood. There’s also a lot more focus on romantic relationships than in the novel, and a fair amount of nudity and implied sex. The overall impression is “Game of Thrones light” – take a well-known fantasy story, season with generous helpings of sex and violence, but in such a way as to aim toward a young-adult audience.
The series is another product of the booming New Zealander film industry. This shows, most of all, in the sheer visual impact of the production. Sets and scenery bear a lot of physical resemblance to pieces of the Tolkien films. In a few cases, I had to wonder if filming had been done in the exact same locations. One can also detect a lot of Weta-Workshop-derived expertise in costuming, creature effects, and visual effects. Visuals in general are superb, at a very high level for an hour-long drama.
The cast is packed with relatively young actors, drawn from all over the world. Astin Butler has some acting chops, injecting more than just good looks into his role as Wil Ohmsford. Ivana Baquero and Poppy Drayton play off one another well, as Wil’s adventuring companions and potential love interests. John Rhys-Davies brings some much-needed gravitas as the Elven King Eventine. New Zealander actor Manu Bennett does a very good Allanon: prickly, difficult, but also radiating sheer physical presence. (It was interesting seeing Bennett out of the pounds of albino-orc makeup he was forced to wear during the Hobbit films.)
The script is fast-paced, full of snappy dialogue and plot twists. At times the plot may be a bit confusing. There’s a lot of implied back story, geography, and lore, and characters seem to travel back and forth across the landscape with no clear plan. There are also at least two major plot-lines and several subplots going on at any given time, often in different locations. The production does make good use of establishing shots, to give the viewer hints as to which piece of the plot comes next. I’d advise sticking with the story, as it becomes easier to follow once all the major recurring characters have been introduced.
The early Shannara novels didn’t qualify as great literature. This series doesn’t qualify as ground-breaking film. Still, I found it quite entertaining and it had moments of strong character drama. Several sequel hooks remained open in the final episode, and the series has already been picked up for a second season. Well worth watching.