Format: hard cover, first edition, 2013
Reading Time: about 10 hours
One Sentence Synopsis: As Aphenglow and Arlingfant struggle to complete the Bloodfire quest, Railing returns from his own quest to seek Grianne, in order to help rescue his brother Redden from the Straken Lord’s captivity.
By now you know the story of how my struggles with reviewing Bloodfire Quest got the better of me and I left the book blogging world for a few years. After my return to this blog, in my review of Bloodfire Quest I talked about the opinion that Aiden of A Dribble of Ink had regarding Witch Wraith and the several preceding volumes:
“It’s better to consider the ‘trilogy’ to be the story told across all nine of the books, beginning with Ilse Witch and ending with Witch Wraith. Let’s call this the Ilse Witch Trilogy, for lack of an official name…Just by existing, Witch Wraith and The Dark Legacy of Shannara change the nature of the first two volumes of The Ilse Witch trilogy and take them from being footnotes in Brooks’ career to a cornerstone.”
So after completing Witch Wraith do I agree with that assessment? Read on to find out, but I’m warning you ahead of time that there are massive spoilers throughout this review about the events and ending of Witch Wraith, as well as the entire Dark Legacy of Shannara series.
What else did Aiden have to say? “That all said, it’s with no small amount of surprise that I have nothing but praise to heap upon Witch Wraith, as a conclusion to The Dark Legacy of Shannara and the Ilse Witch Trilogy, is as satisfying and grandiose as anything Brooks has written. Does it recycle the ending to The Elfstones of Shannara? Absolutely. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same (uhh… spoiler warning?), but it’s not any less emotionally affecting…Witch Wraith makes the books before it stronger by giving weight to the decisions, sacrifices and conflicts that at first seemed pointless. Hollow. What did Grianne change by making the decision she did at the end of Straken? What did the voyage in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara mean for the world at large? We get our answers in Witch Wraith and the pieces have been falling into place since the final pages of The Elfstones of Shannara…The ending of Witch Wraith is bitter-sweet, but Brooks’ none-too-kind treatment of Grianne is a refreshing and somewhat shocking turn for the Shannara series. Her decisions, her struggles, conflicts, flaws and strengths are the beating heart of Brooks’ work. There’s genuine sadness in her story and she’s well deserving of this nine-volume arc.”
Drew at Raging Biblioholism states: “Mostly, I just can’t understand why Terry has been unable to shake almost literally the same plot lines for the last… really the last three trilogies…And this third book in the “Dark Legacy” trilogy ends up feeling like a mashup of everything from really every Shannara series/novel so far. You want to try to find other Elfstones? Done. Time in the Forbidding? Done. Invasion from the Forbidding? Check. Ohmsfords at the center of things? Yep. Even the idea of going back to the tanequil and attempting to retrieve Grianne… it is simply a different version of the same plot as the last series. And not in the way that “there are only six plots in the whole world” or whatever but in that “we’re going to do the exact same mission but more compressed and with a few details changed around” way. It’s just lazy, to be honest…Indeed, much of this book felt… simultaneously rushed and lazy. As though the compressed writing schedule (all three books within one 12-month!) both forced him to write with more pace but to also then rely on old plots to keep up said pace.”
Lighthearted Librarian explains: “As much as I love Terry Brooks, I have to admit, I was disappointed this time…Brooks hinted at the whole “is any race wholly good or evil?” question again as Redden considered Tesla and what life had been like for the Jarka Ruus, but again it was just a blip. And by the way, how did other creatures like the Grimpond get to remain in the Four Lands? If the elves were intent on locking away all evil creatures of Faerie, they certainly missed a few. How does the magic of the Ellcrys snatch away Tesla but leave the Grimpond…I hated the resolution of the Redden/Railing/Mirai storyline — it was too easy. I suppose it doesn’t help that I wasn’t all that fond of either Redden or Railing. I also hated the Grianne storyline but in a good way. It did take things up a notch. It made sense in that even heroes make mistakes, sometimes tragic ones…Despite my disappointment with this installment, I do love the world of Shannara and I’m already looking forward to the next journey. At 25+ titles, however, I’d like to see a few new twists introduced to the series. I’m okay with the fact that we can always look forward to a quest involving the Ohmsfords, the Leahs, and the Ellesedils. I’d just like to see new quests, or new complications.”
Two of the three reviews above express disappointment, and while I think I too was disappointed in places, I was also entertained. There are definitely things to like about Witch Wraith – the siege of Arishaig was well-done, the final attempt to acquire the elfstones was fun, and any scene with Grianne in it was intriguing. In fact, I got a few chills from some of the scenes with Grianne, especially during the showdown with Tael Riverine, although this ended much too quickly for me. Some other things that I think Brooks did well here addressed my criticisms from the first two books. The first is that often the heroes are only the focus and regular people are nothing more than angry crowds or invisible, not seen or heard…what makes them worth saving? Brooks has several examples of the average, everyday person – soldiers fighting for their lives on the walls of Arishaig, elven soldiers befriending and sparring with dwarves, a human woman in the first book who I believed was self-serving but ultimately turned out to be innocent – it feels like Brooks got the message and I thought these moments were compelling. I found myself actually caring about what would happen to the Federation soldiers, which I never thought would happen. Also, I had many questions from the first books that I thought would go unanswered, but Brooks addresses them all (save for one or two) in this third volume, almost like he made a checklist from my questions and checked them off one by one. So a big hand to Brooks for taking the time to plug these holes.
The reviews above address specific criticisms with regard to recycled material…and let’s face it, that’s a long-standing criticism…as well as how the elfstones and Tesla Dart are resolved. And Railing’s character – yuck! Probably the most whiny, self-centered, entitled emo character that Brooks has ever created…I was outright rooting against him and hoped he would fail. But where I really have a problem (and you might want to skip ahead now to the last paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), is with the pacing and plot. Usually I complain when the pacing slows to a crawl, but I have the opposite complaint here – the story feels rushed, as if the six month publishing date between books caused some issues. To tell his tale, Brooks needs the three main story lines to converge, but the likelihood of them doing so at the same time is improbable. Yet it all comes together near the end in a neatly tied up package. The ending is wrapped up far too quickly, and focuses only on what happens to the Ohmsford twins. What about the other characters? Some just disappear after a sentence or two, some have a couple paragraphs devoted to them, but the biggest travesty is the Aphenglow/Arlingfant relationship, which ends in characters discussing it but I would have like to have seen more physical moments leading to emotional responses.
However, the biggest criticism I have involves the plot. In addition to the character convergence I mentioned above, there are two gaping holes. One is that the biggest threat to the Straken army isn’t Arishaig – elves and Federation people could care less about each other, so there was no way Tael Riverine had anything to fear from Arishaig – the biggest threat to his army is the Ellcrys. So why didn’t the Straken army march to Arborlon and attempt to destroy the Ellcrys? Yes, that didn’t work in the past but does Tael Riverine really care about what happened hundreds of years ago? I mean, he could have flown his dragon right to the tree and torched it, and the elves would have been unlikely to stop him even with their airships. Tael Riverine attacking Arishaig is simply a forced plot device to buy time for the characters to converge.
Going a step further, then, is the fact that as long as Aphen and Arling succeeded, it didn’t really matter what anyone else did, the other characters simply had to buy time. Of course, those people fighting the battles didn’t know this – no wait, they actually did – so this has the effect of robbing the story of tension, other than who lives or dies, and thus the actions of other characters don’t matter too much, because Aphen and Arling are the deus ex machina that can render everything else moot.
And following that to its logical conclusion, Grianne wasn’t necessary to the plot at all. She was acquired in order to battle Tael Riverine and get Redden back. But in the end, she simply takes over the Straken Army and gets stuck back in the Forbidding. Aiden’s premise that the return of Grianne makes this series a cornerstone and that it serves to “give strength to some of Brooks’ earlier works just by virtue of existing“…in my opinion this falls flat. She made no difference in the outcome of the book. If Grianne’s return had made the difference in delaying the Straken army long enough for the Bloodfire quest to succeed – else all would have been lost – that would have made her appearance key to the plot. The plot, however, didn’t turn out that way. The Straken army hadn’t taken the eastern pass of the Valley of the Rhenn, let alone the western pass which was even more formidable. They weren’t at the gates of Arborlon with the fall of the city imminent. Tael Riverine was riding a crippled dragon and was not making much progress. Probably the only difference Grianne’s return made was that some elven soldiers’ lives were saved in the 30 minutes (if that) it took for Arling to reach the Ellcrys when Grianne stepped out to face Tael Raverine. That’s hardly what I would define as a cornerstone to the previous two series. I loved Grianne’s character in this book…I just don’t think it was handled appropriately in order to have the impact that Aiden suggests.
So in the end I leave Shannara with mixed feelings. Questions were answered, I cared about the ancillary characters, and I loved (almost) every moment of the re-appearance of Grianne. At the same time, the book felt rushed, the plot shows holes big enough to drive a truck through, Grianne didn’t have the impact I had hoped for, and the ending felt incomplete. I guess I won’t say I’ll never read the stand-alone sequels to Witch Wraith, but with so many books in the queue and several works from promising new authors, it certainly feels like this is goodbye for Shannara and I.