Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review - The Measure of the Magic by Terry Brooks

Short review: Lots of people with names that start with "P" mill about to foil the plans of trolls and a demon.

The black staff hunted
The Elfstones pursued as well
A troll army comes

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: I have a large collection of Terry Brooks' Shannara books sitting on my bookshelves. It is one of the more popular fantasy settings around, and one that I have always intended to delve into, but for one reason or another it always got pushed off until later. Consequently, The Measure of the Magic is my first exposure to Brooks' writing, and even though the second book in a prequel series might not have been the best option, it is still a very good post-apocalyptic fantasy story that was interesting, engaging, and filled with fun action.

The story of The Measure of the Magic starts, unsurprisingly for a second book in a series, in media res, with the central character of the previous book dead, one character picking up the pieces after his death, another lost and hunted by trolls, and a third accused of murdering her own father and imprisoned. In a strange editorial decision, all of the main characters (and a couple of the secondary characters) all have names that start with the letter "P": Pan, Prue, Phryne, and so on. as a storytelling matter, this doesn't change the characters, but it does make it easy to confuse who is who at times. This is somewhat beside the point however, as the real main characters in the book are the black staff that Pan inherits, and the Elfstones that are Phyrne's birthright.

The catalyst for the broad sweep of the story is the impending invasion of a valley that has until recently been magically sheltered from the outside world by a unified army of trolls. From the snippets I gathered the previous book in the series (Bearers of the Black Staff) focused on Sider Ament's efforts to rally the inhabitants of the valley to oppose the threat. However, but the beginning of this book, Sider is dead, his staff has been passed on to Pan, Pan's friend Prue is trapped by a band of trolls, and the elven princess Phyrne is imprisoned after being accused of royal patricide. Meanwhile, the various agents of such authority as exist in the valley seem to be only modestly interested in dealing with the troll army, and are more focused on their own internal power struggles, which seems to be somewhat shortsighted.

The story is told with a rotating viewpoint, mostly focusing on Pan, Prue, and Phyrne, but also telling the tale from the perspective of the antagonists and a few bit players. And the primary antagonist is the demon simply known as Ragpicker who influences most of the events in the story. In this he is opposed by the heroes, but also by the mysterious and supernatural King of the Silver River, although their involvement is mostly centered on the story line featuring Pan and Prue. And in this regard, Pan's story line is somewhat less interesting than Phyrne's. While Phyrne's story has plenty of magic, the villainy, and the heroism, is derived from ultimately mundane sources. But Prue is endowed with magical insight by the King of the Silver River, and much of the problems that are caused in Pan's journey are the result of the malevolent influence of the demon. In short, there is a supernatural problem, and while the mundane heroes have to have the courage to face it, they are armed with extra bonuses by a supernatural benefactor. This, to my mind, detracts from the power of the story: having a mystically super powered being swoop in to save the day and cryptically hand out special powers to the heroes essentially says that they could not have opposed the problem on their own, diminishing them.

Further, while most of the characters in the story are interesting, the primary supernatural agents: the demon and the King of the Silver River, are fairly bland and boring. The demon has only one goal, and pretty much no personality other than that. The King of the Silver River's motivations are entirely unclear, and he appears to exist in the story merely to serve as a boon bestowing agent. The mundane villains in the story: the troll prince Arik Siq, the usurper elven Queen Isoeld, and the Seraphic Skeal Elie are all much more interesting characters than the demon because they have complex motivations and goals, and have to actually work to accomplish them in an environment where a misstep on their part would mean disaster for their plans. The demon, in contrast, has but one goal, and really has nothing that can threaten him for much of the book. Consequently, the demon is malevolent, but dull.

But the characters are likable, and the paths of the three main protagonists intertwine through the book - although interestingly all three of them never end up in the same place together. First Prue finds Pan, then Pan finds Phyrne, then Pan finds Prue again. The story sets up a kind of gentle love triangle that is resolved in a somewhat tidy way (although not particularly happily). Interestingly, all three of the main characters wield magical power, but none of them have any understanding of the powers their wield, which makes them seem like passengers along for the ride through much of the story as they simply follow the magical cues they are handed rather than actually formulating plans and taking proactive action. In fact, the only characters that seem to actually take initiative are secondary characters - the waif Xac Wen, the brothers Tasha and Tenerife, and Aislinne. Lacking in special powers they are forced to actually make decisions based upon their known capabilities rather than following the mysterious prodding of magical artifacts or elusive colorful birds. In many ways, these secondary characters seem more real than the main characters because of this.

In any event, all of the interweaving stories wind towards a satisfying, although not entirely pleasant conclusion, with the caveat that although they are related stories, they don't all tie up together. Despite the fact that several of the featured characters seem to simply drift through the story to some degree, the book moves along as a rapid clip and shifts between them often enough to keep the reader engaged. Even though the ultimate villain is boring, the rest of the antagonists are an interesting bunch whose plots make the action interesting. Despite a bit of a deus ex machina element to the resolution of one story line, the book is still a fun read for any fan of fantasy fiction in general, and certainly a must read for any fan of Shannara specifically.

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  1. great book yet I must know what happens with Pan and I think some miracle should save phri. from "death"