And so, another Terry Brooks trilogy has come to an end. With Straken, Brooks has now ended his “High Druid of Shannara” series, and he does it on a pretty good note. This has certainly been his strongest series for quite a while now, but even so, the last book has some major faults that keep it from being wonderful. According to his web site, he is writing a "Pre-Shannara" trilogy next, which is supposedly about the fall of the civilization that led to the way the Four Lands are today. It seems different enough, and I hope that it stays that way, as Straken (not to mention this entire series) shows that he really needs a break from it. Maybe completely changing the focus will help.
When we last left our heroes, Grianne Ohmsford, the High Druid (or "Ard Rhys") had been captured in the Forbidding (an alternate plane where the druids had imprisoned all of the demons of the world) by a demon with ambitions beyond the Forbidding. In fact, they were plans to destroy it and unleash the imprisoned demonic hordes on Shannara itself. Grianne's rival druids had imprisoned her there, ostensibly because of her evil past, but mostly because they are hungry for the power she wields. But they don't know about the demon's plans, and they are unwittingly helping him. Meanwhile, Pen Ohmsford, Grianne's nephew, has sacrificed the woman he loves and a part of his body in order to forge the Darkwand, a way into the Forbidding so he can rescue his aunt. Pen's parents have been captured by the druids and must escape themselves, while Pen's friends fight desperately to come to his aid. But even if Pen succeeds in freeing his aunt, he finds he must still face the demon that has escaped the Forbidding, before it destroys the only thing that stands in the way of waves of demonic invaders.
I have to say that Straken was certainly more interesting than Tanequil was. While the book contains the normal brooding of all of Brooks' characters, it's not as noticeable as it usually is, making for a much more engrossing book. Brooks avoids some of the predictable pitfalls, but he falls into others. The ending is telegraphed a mile away, as Brooks just can't seem to allow a tragic ending, especially where romance is concerned. With Grianne going on and on about how much she fears using her magic after some of her encounters in the Forbidding (where she had to unleash some of the magic she used to wield when she was a villain), you know how she'll end up. Granted, I didn't realize how Brooks would tie things together, but those are just the details. The overarching plot was very obvious.
That being said, the trip was mostly interesting. There's a good deal of action, and Brooks usually excels at those scenes. Some of it is a tad unbelievable (some characters go a very long time with almost mortal injuries that never seem to end up killing them), but it's well-done for the most part. The final confrontation between Grianne and her fellow druids is actually quite good, with just the right amount of power, skill, and luck involved. Two of the more interesting secondary characters, Kermadec and his brother (both Trolls loyal to Grianne) are heavily involved, and that makes for a riveting scene. In fact, the final fifty or so pages, making up the attack on the druid castle and the ultimate battle really gripped me.
Unfortunately, the book continues on from there for a bit, and gets dull and thoroughly superfluous again. The plot that's been hiding behind everything, of the demon wanting to destroy the gate to the Forbidding, is ended almost perfunctorily, with little of interest in it. I'd almost say it was an afterthought, if the characters hadn't been talking about it for two books already. It does give us a reason why Brooks shows so much of the war between the Elves, Dwarves, and Gnomes against the Federation, which seemed completely pointless throughout the last two books, but that doesn't help with the ending. Not only that, but again Brooks, who hasn't been afraid to kill characters before, thoroughly invalidates one of the more tragic and touching scenes he's written by bringing the characters back to life (oh, I'm sorry…I mean that they were never dead). I can say no more without spoilers, but you'll probably recognize it when you get there.
Up to this point, this review has been mostly a rant, and you must be thinking "four stars?” How does he give it four stars?" There are some (unfortunately long) dull passages in Straken, but Brooks makes up for it by providing us with a lot of interesting characters, even if their actions don't seem to lead anywhere at times. I've always enjoyed Bek and Rue, Pen's parents, and they are on good display again here. They show determination, courage, and loyalty to each other that make them extremely interesting. They throw themselves into the action despite Bek's vow not to use his magic ever again, and Rue's horror when she discovers that Pen has magic similar to his father's is quickly set aside in order to continue the mission. Rue's love for Bek shows in how desperate she fights for what will turn out to be the rescue of a woman she has never really liked since she caused the deaths of a number of her companions all those years ago.
Add to these any number of minor characters, most of whom Brooks also characterizes very well, and you get one heck of an interesting read for the most part. The strains of the continuing Shannara saga are showing, and Brooks really needs the change that it seems is coming, because this series is running on fumes. Thankfully, some of those fumes are quite powerful in themselves, and make what should be a thoroughly pedestrian read a lot better than the sum of its parts.