Terry Brooks’ Legends of Shannara duology is a direct continuation of his Genesis of Shannara trilogy, except that it’s set five hundred years later. This duology is exceptional for Brooks because his Shannara books have mostly been written in sets of three. This comes as a change of pace for the fantasy writer. Not oddly, it feels a little rushed.
In the last Shannara book, The Gypsy Morph, a human boy that was also a fairy creature with magical powers named Hawk led a chosen few group of humans and mutants and Elves on a biblical exodus to a secure valley in the Rocky Mountains. He used his powers to become a magical mist that protected that valley. Because he could. The rest of the world got nuked, but not the valley, because it was protected by a magical mist.
The sequel, Bearers of the Black Staff, starts with that magical mist fading away and the inhabitants of the valley becoming exposed to the outside world. Said outside world is filled with mostly mutants, who have started calling their new species fairy names like Trolls, mostly to match up with the continuity of the books that come later in Brooks’ Shannara saga. The book itself is mostly about the inhabitants of the peaceful valley coming to terms with the realization that their remote world is about to be shattered.
The biggest antagonist to this realization is a religious figure named Skeal Eile, who holds the religious title of Seraphic and is leader of a cult called the Children of the Hawk. The Children of the Hawk believe that Hawk will return like Jesus (remember, Hawk was a messiah figure in the last three books) only after the protective mists failed. They are proved to be wrong, but the Seraphic holds to his own socio-cultural power for the sake of remaining powerful.
This is obviously Brooks’ commenting on conservative, militant religious zealotism. You could apply this commentary about power-hungry fools clinging to their faith to any religion in our world—be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever. The problem is that Brooks expresses his socio-religious commentary mostly in long-winded scenes where characters meet and debate in the kind of councils that are cliché to fantasy literature. These scenes read like descriptions of the C-SPAN channel, and are about as exciting.
When it comes to fantasy, I want to read about badasses with big swords and magical powers punching and zapping each other. There is some of that in Bearers of the Black Staff, but not enough for my taste.
There is also a lot of generalized exposition. Brooks masterfully ends his chapters with exciting cliffhangers of characters being attacked by wild beasts or realizing that their allies are in fact traitors to their causes. But when he next picks up with those characters, he usually starts his narrative not with the fallout from the cliffhanger, but instead some time later. And he’ll fill in the narrative gap of what happened between with several pages of dry exposition. This is why the book feels rushed. Brooks should have taken the time to expand these exposited scenes and fill them in with rich details. Instead of glossing over the conflict that occurs between a cliffhanger and the next plot point, he should have delved into it and given it nuance.
I should mention that the title derives from the black staff one of the characters, Sider Ament, carries. This staff was apparently handed down from generation to generation from one of the magical badasses that inhabited the valley at the end of The Gypsy Morph. Part of this story is about how that staff came to be in Sider Ament’s hands, and who will carry it next.
There are other characters in this story aside from Sider Ament, of course. He is not even the protagonist, although the narrative is fractured enough between different characters that it’s hard to tell who exactly is the central character. If there is one, he is Panterra Qu, whose strange name has nothing to do with him being earthy, despite it being derived from “pan.” The names in Bearers of the Black Staff—and indeed most of Brooks’ books—are so strange that I often wonder if he came up with them by slapping silly syllables together and seeing what sounded funniest.
I am being overly harsh. I enjoyed reading Bearers of the Black Staff. Mostly I enjoyed it because I enjoyed the books that preceded it, and wanted to see what happened to the people Hawk led into the protected valley. I also read Brooks’ other Shannara books, which occur some time later in the chronology of Brooks’ fantasy world, and I wanted to see how that world evolved and came to be. Bearers of the Black Staff is written so that it can be accessible to new readers, but it will be best understood and enjoyed by Brooks’ regular fans.