Terry Brooks revisits the land of Shannara, where he earned his fame and fortune. High Druid of Shannara: Jarka Ruus is the beginning of yet another three-book series set in this world. After the lackluster Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series (Ilse Witch, Antrax, and Morgawr), I had hoped Brooks wouldn't visit Shannara again for awhile, as that series was very similar to all of his other books and didn't offer very much new. I'm very pleased to say, however, that while it's not the most original book around, Jarka Ruus is actually a very entertaining read.
Grianne Ohmsford used to be known as the Ilse Witch, one of the most evil magical villains around. As part of her redemption after the events in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara series, former druid Walker Boh challenged her to re-form the Druid Council and bring the study of magic back to the Four Lands of Shannara. To do so, she must overcome her past -- and the perceptions of her past -- and convince the world that she has changed. She's been working at this for twenty years.
Not everybody has forgiven her for deeds as the Ilse Witch. Other druids plot against her, either power-hungry for what she has or out of revenge for what she was. One of these plots succeeds, and she disappears. It's up to her nephew, Pen Ohmsford, as well as her faithful Dwarf servant, Tagwen, and fellow druid Ahren Elessedil to find out what happened to her and save her if it's at all possible. Along the way, they will face horrible monsters, druids bent on making sure that Grianne does not return, and vicious assassins. Do they have enough courage and strength to survive? And just where is Grianne? Will she survive long enough to be rescued?
While Brooks hasn't knocked one out of the park with this entry, he has certainly stabilized the Shannara franchise after the free-fall that was Jerle Shannara. The characters are interesting in this one, with Grianne's redemption and the temptation of her old life actually making her a fascinating character. She knows she must never go back to the person she was, but it makes dealing with the plots against her very difficult, since her first instinct is to blast back. Her determination to better herself and to continue on in the face of such diversity is really nice to see. In addition, it makes her a different character than most of Brooks' others, which is refreshing.
The other main characters -- Pen, Tagwen, Ahren, and Khyber (Ahren's niece) -- are also nicely done, though less distinctive. Pen is an Ohmsford, and he isn't much different from the Ohmsford heroes of old from all of the previous books. He has his own little piece of magic (though the magic itself seems to be dying out as it's diluted along the Ohmsford bloodline) that is seemingly useless but becomes appropriate for the mission at hand. That does seem a little convenient and arbitrary, and that's one of the faults with the premise of the series. He's young and impetuous, easily falling in love with the daughter of the airship captain they hire to take them on their journey. The others have some nice characterization as well, though they do not stand out.
The saving grace of this novel is the world, and the fact that Brooks seems to be trying something a little different. Redemption has never been one of his main themes, but this time he tackles it with full force. Grianne is put in a situation that will require her to make choices between her old self and the new, and the consequences of those choices could mean her life. There is a parallel between this series and Jerle in the fact that another male relative of Grianne's has to save her. However, Jarka Ruus shows us that Grianne is more than capable of taking care of herself while she's waiting to be rescued. This is clearly her story even as it's Pen's coming of age. Brooks handles the two plot lines effortlessly, never letting us grow tired of one before switching back to the other.
Another strength of the book is the use of Shannara continuity. I've always loved this world even as I've disliked some of the books, and Brooks takes us on another travelogue around it. He uses just the right combination of old and new to season the book without overpowering it. There are references to almost every previous book, but either they are just for the fans and aren't really necessary or he explains them well enough that the new reader will not be confused. Brooks has been known to wallow in this stuff, so seeing the light but firm touch he has with continuity in this book was great. We even get to see places that have been referred to but never actually seen (the Forbidding, where demons have been locked away for millennia, and the far northern areas of the world).
A few things bring the book down, though. First, Brooks continues to have his characters brood as a way of thinking about the things happening to them. There are times when this goes on for a page or two, with the character just thinking about their situation, how they got there, and what they should do next. At least they didn't do this in the middle of combat, which is a valid criticisms of earlier books. It still gets monotonous, though.
Secondly, there is a bit of an internal logic problem that gnawed at me. During the run from the other druid airship, much is made of the fact that Ahren cannot use his druid magic or else the bad guys would be able to trace them. They are constantly talking about this. Then, once when he is forced to use his magic, they donít seem to express any worry about it. They settle down in a city waiting for the storm to abate so they can cast off again. They are then surprised by the druid ship. Shouldn't they have been expecting and worrying about this? However they should have reacted, it should not have been with surprise.
Jarka Ruus is a very promising first entry in the High Druid of Shannara series. I hope that Brooks can maintain this quality, or even exceed it. He does seem to have a winning formula, but this time he's not trying to sell us more of the same in a different package. It's familiar enough for regular Brooks readers, but not so familiar that you feel you just shelled out more money for the same book.