It’s been 33 years since Terry Brooks introduced us to the world of Shannara. We’ve seen the sword wielded and the Elfstones found, then lost, then found and lost again. We’ve seen the power of the Wishsong. We’ve met the First King, we’ve seen the founding of the order of Druids and it’s apparent demise. And throughout it all, there has been something familiar about this world.
Then, in the Genesis of Shannara series, Brooks admitted to something that many fans had thought — the world of Shannara is our own world, or at least our own world as seen in Brooks’ Knights of the Word series. And suddenly, Shannara fans who never read the Word books and Word fans who had ignored Shannara had to play catch-up.
Bearers of the Black Staff is the first of two books in the Legends of the Void series that starts bridging the gaps between the Genesis of Shannara and the stories that hooked so many Brooks fans back in 1977. And after that many years, there is still a lot we don’t know (yet) about that world.
The magics that have been keeping the remnants of the Old World out of the valley are breaking down. Sider Amnet, the bearer of the Black Staff, the heir to the last Knight of the Word, knows it’s happening; he has been attacked by creatures from outside. Panterra Qu and Prue Liss, human Trackers, know it because those same creatures have killed some of their fellow Trackers.
They travel beyond the barrier to see what awaits them in the outside world. Prue is captured by a Troll army, and now <i>they</i> know that the barrier is falling. And they’re on their way to conquer the valley.
There are elements to Bearers of the Black Staff that will be familiar to Shannara fans; the Elfstones are missing (sort of), and once found the chosen Bearer doesn’t really want the job. Sider Amnet plays the Druid role — the mysterious, almost legendary figure who provides leadership and magic to the cause. One thing, though, is missing that is always in a Shannara book.
There’s no real quest. There is no “We need to go there to find this and bring it back/destroy it/figure out how to use it” anywhere in the book. This isn’t a bad thing; it just means that, however many familiar elements there are in the book, Bearers of the Black Staff is not a formula book. It was a little disconcerting at first, because there IS a journey in the book — it just isn’t that long, and is over well before the end of the book. There is the obligatory treachery, the love triangle, the allusions to the past — the elements of a Shannara book are all there, but they aren’t presented in the typical fantasy epic formula. The ARE presented in a very compelling way, and I often found myself reading long after I should have been asleep.
It’s not a thick book, which is another way it differs from the typical Shannara epic; it almost seems like this was meant to be a single book, but became too long for one volume and not quite enough for two. The characters are compelling, and don’t always fit the traditional Shannara character types. There isn’t a lot of growth in this book, but I see room for growth in future books.
I hadn’t planned on reading the Knights of the Word series. I actually haven’t read all of the Genesis of Shannara series yet. But now, I find myself really wanting to learn more about the pre-disaster world of Shannara, so I will be doing some serious catching up this year.