Monday, September 06, 2010

Legends of Shannara: Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks

Five Hundred Years ago, the United States, and the rest of the world, was torn apart by a Demon War. Logan Tom, the Knight of the Word, managed to save a bunch of refugee children known as the Ghosts by leading them to a hidden valley in the mountains, which was sealed by a magic mist by Hawk, the boy who was also the Gypsy Morph.

The humans and elves now live in the Valley on what used to be Mt. Rainier, and many of the humans follow a religion/philosophy about Hawk, calling themselves "The Children of the Hawk", they wait for Hawk to return, not knowing that the magic used to seal off their valley home is fading, and the outside world will soon be coming in.

Two children who are trackers from one of the communities of men, Pantera Qu and Prue Liss, discover the fading of the magic when two older trackers from Glensk Wood, their home, are found slaughtered in their sleep. Bayleen and Rausha's bodies have been ravaged, leaving only parts behind, and are only recognizable because of Rayleen's bracelet, still in place on one hand severed below the wrist. They decide to track whatever did it, aided by Prue's ability to detect danger and Pantera's better than normal tracking ability.

The discover the creatures that slew their friends took the missing body parts to eat later, but before they can find the creatures, the creatures find them, and they are only saved by the arrival of Sider Ament, known as "The Gray Man", the last living bearer of a Staff of the Word- even though no one has heard from the Lady in hundreds of years, the staff and its powers survive, and Sider kills one of the creatures, which he had been tracking. But the other flees, and Sider goes after it, after telling Pantera and Prue to bring word to the peoples of the Valley that the mists are fading, and the protection of the peoples there will soon be gone.

They agree and return to Glensk Wood, where Pantera's sometimes friend and known thief, Brickey, warns Pantera about bringing word to the council. No one will believe him because they don't want to believe. and the leader of the Children of the Hawk will decide to take care of them because their truth undermines the Prophecies of the Children, who believe that Hawk will bodily return to lead them to greatness in the outer world.

Nevertheless, Pantera stands up to give his report to the Council, who, just as he has been told, don't believe him. They pretty much call him a liar and wonder why he is bringing such a tale to them. But he and Prue are rescued by the return of Aislinne Kray, wife of the town's leader, who steps in to rescue them from the wrath of the Council. She and her huband, who ascribes to the beliefs of the Children of the Hawk, no longer see eye to eye, and he is backed by Skeal Eile, who happens to be a mystic as well as the Leader of the Children- and he also hates Aislinne, who happens to be a woman that Sider Ament once loved and considered marrying before the Staff went to him.

Aislinne helps the two to escape and tells them that Skeal has a way of enforcing his beliefs so that the truth doesn't penetrate- he has those who question the beliefs or who show up with proof against them killed or run off, and she doesn't want the same to happen to Pantera and Prue. They decide discretion is the better part of valor and take off to tell the elves about the fading magic, and to see their elven friends, the Orullian brothers, who are knights of the King of the Elves.

Meanwhile, Sider passes through the failing magic into the outside world, where the last of the creatures has fled, and ends up being attacked by it. He just manages to kill it with the help of a human named Deladion Inch, a mercenary who has the last remaining automatic flechette weapon, and the ammo, in the world. The creatures Sider fought are well-known in the outside world and are called Agenahls. They hunt in pairs and are strong and ruthless. Inch is amazed that Sider managed to kill one pretty much on his own, and he's interested in Sider's staff. Sider, meanwhile, is interested in the world outside the valley, so they trade information.

He discovers that the humans mutated by radiation, which his own people call "Frogs" have renamed themselves "Trolls" and have become numerous. The trolls are the offspring of two of Hawk's former Ghosts and a girl who was undergoing mutation, and over time have split into numerous tribes. One of the tribes, the Drouj, have become predominant, and have been conquering all the other troll tribes to make a vast army.

After recovering, Sider leaves Inch and returns to the valley, where he heads for the village to speak to Aislinne, who tells him what a horrible thing he did to those children, having them take his message to the Council. She tells him about where they headed, and maintains that even so, she still has some kind of feelings for him- but she is faithful to her husband. And Skeal Eile has sent an assassin after Pantera and Prue, unknown to either of them.

Pantera and Prue have gone to Aborlon, seat of the Elf King. Despite humans and Elves having shared the valley for 500 years, their races don't intermingle much. Even so, Pantera and Prue are considered by the Orullian brothers to be brother and sister- humans on the outside, elves on the inside. Tasha and Tenerife Orullian are concerned by the news that Pantera and Prue bring, and they would bring it to the Elven King, but he doesn't trust what they say, so they ask the King's daughter, Phryne Amarantine, to intercede with the King on their behalf to check out the closest pass.

She agrees to ask the King, but she has a demand of her own- she wants to go with them. She's afraid for the Kingdom, and she's afraid that her stepmother, who is already betraying the King with one of his ministers, is playing her father for a fool, and she doesn't want to witness it. Eventually, they agree to take her, and she petitions the King, and he, too, agrees.

But the expedition finds that the passes are empty. Not only are the mists failing, they are already gone. They see a campfire in the distance, and Phryne pushes Pantera and Prue into investigating it, and they are captured by a group of trolls, one of whom is the son of the leader of the Drouj tribe, and he wants to kill Pantera and Prue. But Arik, who claims to be from another tribe, tells the other Troll that they should have his father interrogate them, and the two are chained up and taken to the Troll camp.

Arik, who seems to be on their side, helps and advises them, and Pantera tries desperately to mislead the leader of the trolls about the nature and the readiness of the humans in the valley to resist them, Sider Ament shows up in the Elven Camp and goes on his own to try and rescue Pantera, who he wants to be the next wielder of the Staff. and Prue. But while Pantera is released to carry a message to the leaders of the men and the elves, a viper and spy sneaks into the valley with them, and Prue must be left behind to serve as a hostage to Pantera's good behavior, and meanwhile, back in the Kingdoms of the men and elves, plans for treason are being hatched. The question is, will the attack of the Trolls put paid to those plans, or will they make it even easier for the Trolls to conquer the entire valley?

It's been a while since I read the series-es linking Terry Brooks "Knight of the Word" series with his wildly popular "Shannara" stories, and while we are finally getting to the point, where they might at some point- there is another 1500 years to pass before this series meets up with "Sword of Shannara", the first published book by Terry Brooks., and there is another 500 years before the order of the Druids is founded. So it seems we have a ways to go yet.

All the same, Terry Brooks writes some awfully good fantasy, and this book is no exception. Though this is the start of a new series under the "Shannara" umbrella, and you don't know who these characters are, you come to care for them and be invested in their concerns very quickly, and to want to know what will happen next. Although we see the staff of the Knight of the Word still exists (and this seems to be the one owned by John Ross and Logan Tom), since it doesn't survive into the Shannara-verse and the other remaining staff is destroyed (the one owned by Angel in the prequel to this series), I have to wonder how long it will continue to last. The Lady hasn't been heard from in hundreds of years- and there seem to be no other Knights, so it may be that the Staff will end up being destroyed in this series.

But I did really enjoy this story. As before, there is a mix of heroism and villainy on both sides of the story, and having the heroes confronting villainy from people who are supposed to be on their side right off really pulled me in. And I know that Bearers of the Staff/Knights of the Word aren't supposed to be married because it would interfere with their duty to fight the forces of the void/evil and darkness, but I got a very John Ross/Nest Freemark kind of feel over Aislinne and Sider Ament that left me feeling melancholy. Very well done and recommended.

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