Sep 24, 2013

[Books] Jarka Ruus (High Druid of Shannara Book 1)

Shannara was my first fantasy series (yes, even before The Lord of the Rings) and so I've sort of stuck with the books ever since. And while they haven't necessarily been the best ever fantasy books around, they do always have a certain degree of nostalgia for me with every new book that I read. And Terry Brooks seems more than willing to continue to flesh out his little world, even going as far as linking this book series with his Word & Void books to have them in a single continuity.

Jarka Ruus is one of the "latter" books in this on-going series that continues to tell the adventures of this fantasy land and how the Ohmsford family continues to play a key role in things. Given the franchise already spans quite a number of books telling similar stories across quite a number of generations at this point, it's interesting how we can never quite get rid of this particular family. It's as if they were designed to be heroes and the powers that drive this particular fantasy realm just can't get enough of them. If anyone is fated to save the Four Lands from evil plots and darker forces, an Ohmsford has to get involved in one way or another.

The last series of books, The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, introduced the element of airships into the Shannara stories, which gives things a bit of a steampunk feel at times. This element continues to play a key role in this trilogy, which I suppose is a good thing given a lot of the former books involved a heck of a lot of walking. This allows us to focus on the story itself, which nicely employs elements from prior books in a new way.

Synopsis: Jarka Ruus is the first book in the fantasy trilogy of the High Druid of Shannara. It was written by Terry Brooks and takes place over 20 years since the events depicted in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara.

The Druid Council at Paranor has been re-formed thanks to the efforts of Grianne Ohmsford, once the dread Ilse Witch. Now she is the High Druid, known as the Ard Rhys, although her new Druid Council is less than ideal. The Council is divided into a number of factions, many of which are uncomfortable with her rule given his past deeds while still Ilse Witch. To this end, a group led by the Druid Shadea a'Ru finally sets into a plan that will remove the Ard Rhys from the equation and allow her and her allies to gain power over the Council.

They succeed and it is eventually revealed that they have banished The Ard Rhys to the Forbidding, the ancient prison of the great evils created back in the time of Faerie. Grianne's loyal aide Tagwen sets out to find help in discovering her whereabouts and possible rescuing her. His search first brings him to the home of Bek Ohmsford and his family but instead Tagwen only finds Pen, Bek's son. The two end up escaping the Druids together and enlist the aid of the Druid Ahren Elessedil and his niece Khyber. But this is not before a chance encounter with the King of the Silver River, who tells Pen that only he can rescue his aunt - he just has to figure out how.

By now a lot of us Shannara readers are familiar with how the various Shannara stories begin. There's the problem that the Four Lands face, the possible solution and the need to enlist an Ohmsford into things. That leads to the full party that will endeavor to resolve the quest and this goes on for three books before we get to the end of things. In some books we've seen even greater repetition of the stories such as how the first Shannara trilogy was oddly mirrored across the four books of The Scions of Shannara. But I'll go as far as saying that this book feels nicely different, at least on first reading. And Brooks has made an interesting effort into tying older elements into the book without making them seem trapped in their former selves, as it were.

Pen makes for an odd hero given he's probably one of the first Ohmsfords in a while with little to no magic one more and not too many skills beyond that. He's experience in the running of airships because of his parents but this doesn't mean he can build airships left and right whenever he needs them. His Rover lineage also does not seem to come into play all that much compared to some older Ohmsfords. Nor does he have command of the Elfstones given their Elven lineage appears to have been completely bred out of the Ohmsford line. Thus I don't think we've had so plain a hero in this story since the very first book, The Sword of Shannara.

Throwing Grianne into The Forbidding was certainly an interesting twist and one that allows us to explore this secret realm just beyond the Four Lands. It will be most interesting to see how she'll survive the horrors of that land long enough to be rescued, if ever, especially given her dark history and her desire not to go back to such lengths in order to survive.

Beyond that though, the book does seem to set off to a bit of a slow start. While there are a lot of dangers that the party faces on the journey and they do get from one end of the realm to the other, it still feels like a lot of narrative wandering around. The quest is there and they have a general goal but everyone's still largely clueless as to what to do. This is a good and a bad thing since it means that they heroes will need to puzzle through how to resolve things, but it also means we don't quite have clear cut goals like find elements A-D and then bring them to location X or something. But I'll cut the characters some slack and see how things go.

Jarka Ruus is certainly off to a promising start and I like this book more than the two prior Shannara trilogies before this. Brooks still likes his patterns and a general sense of repetition but it's not quite as rigid as what we saw with David Eddings and his Belgariad and Malloreon books where the repetition was somehow a narrative device a well. Still, this first title gets 3.5 airship battles out of a possible 5.

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