All I want is a good fantasy read. Is that so much to ask?
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Le Guin has long been a favorite of fantasy devotees, so it was time I tried her out.
I found myself constantly putting this book down in favor of doing almost anything else, including cleaning off my writing table. When I choose to clean instead of reading my book, things are not going well.
The worldbuilding is spectacular and the writing is competent, but the style is distant. There is much telling, little showing, and I feel no connection with the characters or what is happening to them. This may be a sign of the times; the book was first published in 1968, after all, and it may be that I would have enjoyed it if I’d read it back in the day. But since nobody ever gives me a prize for finishing a book no matter what, I dnf’d at 32%. I feel a little guilty, too.
Bookshelves: dnf, fantasy, magic
Then I remembered The Sword of Shannara, that I read when I was 18 or 19 maybe, and loved. And if there’s anything better than the instant gratification afforded by downloadable books, it’s the free instant gratification afforded by downloadable books from my library.
The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
Oh my. You’d think I would have seen it when I read it the first time, what a nearly complete ripoff it is of Lord of the Rings, which was single-handedly responsible for my demerits and poor grades in junior high and high school math, because I would hide the LOTR volumes inside my math text and plan my wedding to Aragorn instead of paying attention to hypotenuses (hypotenusi?). I was only slightly older, 18 or so, when I first read SOS. Even then I was still writing stupid poetry about knights in shining armor, with Aragorn firmly in mind. I admit it.
So. The Sword of Shannara.
wizard druid Gandalf Allanon approaches our hero, Frodo Baggins Shea Ohmsford (a simple and honest hobbit elf-halfbreed from a simple and honest town with simple and honest values), because he is the only one who can use the one ring sword of power to save Middle Earth the world. The ring sword was forged by a rogue wizard druid, the Dark Lord Sauron Warlock Lord Brona, who is returning from a long vacation to stir things shit up again, and the ring sword is the only thing that can destroy him. Accompanied only by his faithful gardener adoptive brother Sam Flick and a bag of apples and cheese,* Frodo Shea flees The Shire Shady Vale, seconds ahead of the once-human minions of evil known as Ringwraiths Skull Bearers. They reach the town of Bree Leah and the ranger local lord Aragorn Menion Leah, who guides them on their way. At Weathertop the Mist Marsh the company is attacked by a Ringwraith Mist Wraith, and rescued by the elf faerie Arwen Evenstar King of the Silver River. They R&R at the idyllic elven dwarvish stronghold of Rivendell Culhaven, where a Very Important Council is held. After it is settled that Frodo Shea is their only hope, each race volunteers a member to have his back, and the fellowship company swells to include the dwarf Gimli Hendel, the elf Legolas elven brothers Durin and Drayel, and the human prince Boramir of Gondor Balinor of Callahorn…
Derivative doesn’t begin to describe it.
And I know that tropes are tropes are tropes. Since George MacDonald and Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, very little is new in fantasy literature. The dark lord, the intricate worldbuilding, the quest, the simple farmboy hero, the magic thingamajig,** the prophecy, the elves and dwarves and gnomes and trolls and dragons and wise old wizard/mage/druid/sorcerer, and so on. Tropes are tropes because they work. All genres have them. It’s easy for me to sneer at romance tropes because I sneer at romance generally***, but detective novels have tropes too, and I know it, and I don’t care because I like detective novels. But with SOS, I find the “of course the author was heavily influenced by Tolkien, everybody is” defense to be a wee bit disingenuous. It reminds me of when I was ten or so, and I showed my mother the book I’d started writing, and she said, “Isn’t that almost exactly, but not completely and totally, like mushing Heidi and The Secret Garden together?” Yeah, but I was ten.
I could even deal with it, if not for the actual writing. Terry Brooks loves adverbs and adjectives. “He raced swiftly” is redundant. “He trailed off abruptly” is contradictory. Everybody is always doing things suddenly, abruptly, hastily, hurriedly, and so on, but the favorite is “quickly,” sometimes twice in three sentences. My brain is now doing that thing where it compulsively interjects “quickly” into long passages of things that already have the living shit described out of them: “The bright moonlight (quickly) glowed eerily off the rough bark and deep green patches of ragged moss on the hulking, massive trees, (quickly) creating deep black shadows in the thick carpet of prickly needles on the damp, spongy, forest floor and sinuously (quickly) blending into the sticky, grasping mist…” (That is not an actual sentence from the book, but it could be.) So when I’m not mentally hearing “quickly” even where it isn’t, I’m skimming passages of clunky, repetitive description, and when I start skimming, it’s time to accept that this Prince Charming of a book is not doing it for me.
Other folks may like it just fine, and judging by the ratings on Goodreads and Amazon, plenty do.
I already knew my 18-year-old self did not have terribly discerning taste, as evidenced by my dating habits (bad boys who drove muscle cars and always had weed) and my drinking habits (anything), but I’d really really hoped this book would be as good as I remembered it. Alas. Dnf-ing at 19%.
Bookshelves: dnf, fantasy, magic, ugh, was-the-editor-drunk, wannabe
(I am happy to report, though, that I no longer write stupid poetry about knights in shining armor, I have refined my taste in booze, and I now know what a hypotenuse is.****)
Which leaves me still just really wanting a good fantasy read. I became intrigued by Brandon Sanderson when he finished writing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death (as Jordan wished, having left drafts and detailed notes for that purpose). I liked Sanderson’s writing style better than Jordan’s – less formal, less wordy – but he was working with Jordan’s world, Jordan’s characters, Jordan’s story, so I’m finally getting around to seeing what he can do on his own. I got a free download of the first parts of both The Way of Kings and Mistborn.
Wish me luck.
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* I made up the apples and cheese. It might have been bread and sausages.
** Or a doohickey. Could be a doohickey.
***I sneer at romance not because I’m a prude, but because (1) it is so often badly written and (2) it is so often thinly disguised erotica/mommy porn, and I think if you want to read porn, you should just own it and go ahead and read proper porn and not pussy (heh) foot around about it.
**** But I never did marry Aragorn. Arwen Evenstar, that bitch.