Monday, May 7, 2012

The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks


The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks is the second book in the Legends of Shannara duology published by Del Rey. I recently finished reading Bearers of the Black Staff, the first book in the duology, and was pleased with the book. You can find my review here. I thought there was a lot of promise in the book. The Measure of Magic is a at a bit of a handicap as it cannot be full of promise, it must deliver on the promise being the concluding installment in the series.

I think that Terry largely delivers but misses the mark in a few areas that keep the book from being as good as it could. That being said, I enjoyed the book a lot. It is very well written and keeps intact the core themes of Shannara. Please be warned that there are some minor spoilers in this review if you have not yet read the first book.

The Measure of Magic continues the journey of the three main characters of the Legends of Shannara duology: Panterra Qu (Pan), Prue Liss and Phryne Amarantyne. The three continue to search for a way to prevent an army of Trolls from descending into their hidden valley and seizing it for themselves. Complicating matters, a demon, the Ragpicker, has appeared bent on seizing the Black Staff, an artefact of magic carried by Pan. The demon complicates matters because it decides the best way to go about seizing the Black Staff is to sow discord amongst the inhabitants of the hidden valley and aid the troll incursion. So, Panterra, Prue and Phryne must work to not only save their respective peoples from the trolls but also confront the demon. Generally speaking, fairly standard fantasy fare.

The biggest surprise with the book was how Prue Liss became my favorite character. I thought Terry Brooks did an excellent job developing her as a character and really filled the void caused by the death of Sider Ament. In the Bearers of the Black Staff she was a character full of promise but of little real impact. Her encounter with the King of the Silver river provides Terry a great means of exploring her character but also keeping in line with one of the core themes of Shannara, sacrifice.

A second surprise with The Measure of Magic was the increased narrative complexity in the last half of the book. I both praised and criticized the Bearers of the Black Staff for its excellent pacing but also feeling over edited resulting in a very linear and vanilla story. The Measure of Magic keeps with that style until the last half of the book. There, in an effort to wrap up each story line and unveil the climatic finish, each story thread ends in cliffhanger fashion with the big reveal saved for the final few chapters. I though this really elevated the tension of the book, making you want to read just one more chapter.

Lastly, I thought Terry did an excellent job keeping with the core themes of Shannara. Great sacrifice is required to preserve the world. Evil of the few is abetted by the inaction of the many. One of the bit criticisms leveled against the Legends of Shannara duology is how little it ties into the mythos, i.e. the lack of specific objects and people. While I can sympathize with this perspective, I think it is unimportant. First, because you do not want to alienate new readers. Second, it is the themes that are more important, not cameos of items and people. Terry’s ability to preserve those themes also preserves the “Shannara” feel to the books and helps make them distinct from his other writings.

Now, there were several things that I did not like as much. Upon reflection, I did not like them in the Bearers of the Black Staff either, but it was the first book in the series and not the last. So, I was willing to give the series the benefit of the doubt. My biggest issue is that the relationship between Pan and Phryne. I commented on my dislike in my review of the first book.

Things haven’t improved in The Measure of Magic. The relationship between Pan and Phryne still feels rather superficial. I think you could have removed it entirely from the series with minimal impact. I think the main reason it exists was to develop an additional connection between Sider & Pan’s character vis a vi Sider’s relationship with Aisilline. Thus you create a better metaphorical transferral of duties between Sider and Pan when Pan takes up the staff.

There is just zero depth to Pan & Phryne’s relationship. Worse, is the narrative continually reminds you that it is impossible. So why bother? The low point of this relationship was the sad “I need to be close to someone right now, lets have sex” scene. It was just very hollow. Conversely, Sider & Aisilline’s relationship had weight. Weight that was increased with Aisilline visiting Sider’s old homestead. Also worsening matters is the wonderful interplay between Pan and Prue over Prue’s sacrifice. The fact that Pan can have a complex relationship with Prue but have such a non-existent relationship with Phryne is frustrating.

Also disappointing were characters I found interesting but were never given an opportunity to grow into something great. Particularly painful was Aisilline. I thought she was interesting and really wanted to read more of her, but unfortunately the book ends just as she really hits her stride. This criticism is perhaps a bit unfair however, as it is more directly a criticism on the length of the books. None the less, in addition to Aisilline, I would have liked to seen more time spent on Tasha and Tenerife as well.

Another frustration that centers on the relatively short length of the series is how some characters are less characters and more plot devices, some are clearly deus ex machina. In the Bearers of the Black Staff, Deladion Inch was a the best example of this fact. Deladion was introduced to aid Sider, save Prue and set the stage for the introduction of the Ragpicker. Once this was accomplished, he was pruned, i.e. killed, from the story.

In The Measure of Magic, you have a few more of these characters. Xac Wen in particular seems to exist for little reason beyond conveying information between far flung characters. He runs fast and is of little import. I think Isoeld even fits into this category, being a fairly two dimensional antagonist for Phryne. The dragon at the end of Phryne’s story definitely fits and one of the more egregious deus ex machina moments. That said, dragons are like literary bacon. But, can these even be criticisms when ultimately, I am complaining that I simply wanted more?

So what is my verdict? If you are a fan of Shannara then read the books. It is really that simple. Terry is a terrific writer and his skill shows. The Measure of Magic is probably too vanilla for more adventurous speculative fiction readers, much as I said for Bearers of the Black Staff. But, I still have a soft spot for Shannara. I thought there were a few misses and the story didn’t finish nearly as strong as I would have liked, but that only means its a good book, not a great book. Lastly, I just wish there was more. I would have liked to seen Terry explore the people of the hidden valley and the outside world. But is that not itself an endorsement of the book? I want more? May you will as well.

Random House, Inc.: The Measure of Magic by Terry Brooks
Imagine Source: Scanned Cover
Review Copy: Amazon Vine provided Advanced Review Copy
ISBN: 0345484207

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