I’ve been an avid reader of Terry Brooks for many years, and he has always managed to keep me riveted with his extraordinary writing abilities. The latest installment of his long-running “Shannara” series, The Darkling Child is no different. As always, Brooks manages to ask pointed and deep philosophical questions while still maintaining his trademark storytelling abilities.
The novel has a brisk pace, picking up shortly after where the first novel in the trilogy, The High Druid’s Blade, left off. Paxon, devoted servant to the Ard Rhys Aphenglow, finds himself struggling with his identity. When Reyn Frosch, a traveling musician in command of the wishsong, reveals his power, Paxon accompanies the Druid Avelene to attempt to bring the boy to Paranor. Of course, the dangerous sorcerer Arcannen also has designs on the singer, intending to eradicate the Red Slash, an elite corps of the Federation army responsible for the destruction of Arbrox, a community of pirates who gave him shelter. The inevitable showdown ensues, and while Reyn flees into hiding as a doctor, Arcannen escapes again and the Druid Avelene is slain. The novel ends with a broken and lost Paxon visiting Leofur, the sorcerer’s daughter, in the hopes of rekindling their romance.
Throughout his long and storied career, Brooks has crafted a number of compelling and disturbing villains: the Dagda Mor and Reaper from Elfstones, the Mord Wraiths of Wishsong, Brona of Sword and First King. With Arcannen, however, Brooks has really outdone himself. The sorcerer is a man driven by his own needs and desires, dangerous precisely because he has a vision of the world that forces everyone else to accommodate him. Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that Arcannen is this world’s version of a sociopath. His sociopathy becomes all the more terrifying in that he does seem to have at least some moral compass; his desire to eradicate the soldiers of the Red Slash, for example, is driven (at least in part) by his desire to gain vengeance on behalf of the people of Arbrox who were ruthlessly slain by the Federation army. It is precisely this sense of a twisted moral logic that makes him such a compelling, and almost understandable villain, an agent of chaos that threatens the
While most of Brooks’s works (with the exception of “Landover”) have had world-altering consequences, that is less the case in this present trilogy, where the focus remains pretty rigorously centered on the ongoing conflict between Arcannen and Paxon. Indeed, there is something refreshing about the ways in which Brooks’s vision of his world can accommodate these various kinds of stories, showing us the many questions that the best fantasy novels can ask and the ingenious and complex ways in which they can begin to think about, if not to conclusively, answer them.
All of this is not to say that the novel doesn’t still contain some sense of that epic scale of wonder that has long been a trademark of Brooks’s work. He has stated that he is beginning to wind up the Shannara series, and one can sense even in these more tightly contained novels a sense that this is a world on the brink of a profound change. After all, this is our world many years in the future, when an apocalypse has destroyed most of what was once gained by science. Now that things have slowly begun to reach their pre-apocalpyse stage of development–the Four Lands are now faced with both airships and increasingly-advanced weapons of war–a final showdown between the wielders of magic and those of science is bound to happen.
What emerges from this novel, in other words, is a bleak existential look at the nature of what makes an epic hero. While Brooks has always been a deft hand with portraying his heroes, particularly those of the Leah family, as tortured souls contending with the world around them and with the sometimes nigh-unbearable forces arrayed against them, Paxon is of a different order. This is a young man struggling with the immense demands placed on him as a result of his various heroic roles: as brother, as servant of the Druids, and as relentless foe of Arcannen. At the same time, he also has to contend with his failures, and it remains to be seen whether his heroic destiny will break him or whether he will rise to fulfill it.
While those familiar with the “Shannara” world will probably gain the most pleasure out of this novel, it is also an ideal starting place for those looking to see what all the fuss is about. With interest in the series starting to pick up thanks to MTV’s forthcoming scripted series (based on Elfstones) entitled The Shannara Chronicles, those who find this novel compelling will be glad to know there are numerous other entries in the series, just waiting to be read.