What I Read July 2019

I burned through a couple of books to start the month, then got stuck in the cycle I’ve been in all summer: starting books only to lose interest about a quarter of the way through. At some point I am going to finish a deluge of books, but it isn’t going to be in August.

The Elf Queen of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The Heritage of Shannara series has not held up anywhere near as well as I’d hoped it would. I recalled really liking this one, but it feels incredibly rushed on a reread. You can’t complain about Brooks being slow paced. This starts with Wren Ohmsford taking up her quest to find the missing Elves. After some misadventures, she finally finds a lead in Tiger Ty, a member of the tribe of elves that rides around on giant birds. He leads her to the deadly island where the elves have moved and she has to get them to safety before the volcano on this island erupts. With the elves she learns both their history and her own and what is required to bring them back to the Four Lands.

This book feels like it was almost completely made up of storytelling shortcuts. The adventure just keeps going even as it adds characters and concepts, so there is no nuance to any of it. Everyone is exactly what they appear to be. Characters are introduced to play roles and there is nothing more to them. There is some excellent action scenes here, and the plot sounds a lot more interesting than it seems when reading it. My disappointment is mostly from wanting something different from this movie than I wanted.

The Talismans of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I have maybe been too hard on this series. This fourth book wraps things up nicely; The Heritage of Shannara is a largely okay series of adventures. I admire the structure of the series. Instead of following the usual linear narrative, this book cordons off its stories. The first book introduces its three sets of heroes, and mostly tells the story of brothers Par and Coll Ohmsford. Instead of continuing their story in the second book, it switches to Walker Boh for his mostly unrelated adventure. The third book then followed Wren on her adventure. Then here is the final book to wrap it all up, and finish the story of Par and Coll. There is a chapter or two in each book to check in on some of the other characters, and a few characters make appearances in the others’ stories, but it mostly tells three unrelated stories that all tie together in a climactic fourth book.

I like that structure. I like at least parts of the plots of each book. I just don’t think Terry Brooks’ writing is for me anymore. Instead of going back and revisit and finish the entire Shannara series, I think I might just box up what I have and put them away. It feels better to leave my memories where they are.

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spied Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb

Sam Kean

This book was really interesting. It deals with nuclear espionage during WWII. Because near the start of WWII the Allies were convinced that not only was Germany working on an atom bomb, but that they were close to discovering one. So while the Manhattan Project geared up, a small group of spies went to great lengths to stop the Nazis.

There is a lot of understandable desperation on display; stuff like filling planes with explosives and flying them into enemy encampments where nuclear experiments were thought to be occurring. They ran several missions into Norway to stop the production of heavy water used in Nazi experiments, only for those efforts to turn into a series of distastrous misadventures. There are a lot of interesting characters, like the Joliot-Curie’s, who seemed to keep missing out on big scientific discoveries and who worked in France to help delay the Nazis and Moe Berg, a MLB catcher turned would be assassin. What is most striking is just how haphazard and desperate all of these efforts were. It is hard to judge how effective anything was. It is clear that the Nazis never really got all that close to producing a bomb, but whether that was due to espionage and sabotage or just due to their own failures. Still, this book makes gives an enthralling look at a part of WWII that is rarely discussed.

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What I Read in June 2019

Even though I had the whole month with no school to take up my time, I still only managed to read two books in June. A large part of that was that I got the idea to do a chapter by chapter read through of a book, kind of to try that format of reread out, and discovered it slowed my reading speed to a crawl. I might still go through with the project, though it will be different than I intended since instead of reading a chapter or two of a book I barely remembered, I blew through the first two books of the series. I will finish that series, see below, and probably another book or two next month, including a book I’ve been reading for more than a year.

The Scions of Shannara

Terry Brooks

I was a big Brooks fan for a couple of years about a decade and a half ago. Since then I’ve grown solidly disinterested in his stuff. However, the “Heritage of Shannara” series, in my mind, was the part of his overarching Shannara saga that was the good part. This quartet of books have long been on my reread stack. They were going to be (and maybe still will be) the subject of an ongoing feature on my blog as I reread them. Spoilers: I am not coming out of this reread with as strong affection for these books as I went in with.

Scions meanders. It is primarily an adventure tale, with a lot of hooks that should excite me, but it feels so much like just generic, bargain basement fantasy. Everything is so obvious. If a character appears evil, they are evil. Characters might be deceptive, but the book never is. It kind of kills the suspense and intrigue that feels like it should be a part of the book. Everything is just so on the surface. The Four Lands are in trouble, and the shade of the Druid Allanon has called the children of the Shannara bloodline to try to save it. They are Par Ohmsford, who has the ability to sing illusions with the wishsong, and his brother Coll, Wren Ohmsford, about whom nothing is learned in this book, and Walker Boh, the Dark Uncle is as yet vague magical powers. They are each given a task, and the book follows the brothers as they attempt to recover the Sword of Shannara. Its fine, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of meat on these bones.

The biggest disappointment is a story hook that almost always lands for me but mostly didn’t here; the conflict between brothers Par and Coll. Usually, that sort of conflict is really my thing, here I don’t get a strong enough feel for the characters to make it work.

The Druid of Shannara

Terry Brooks

The second book does not fix the problems I had with the first book in this series. Honestly, it sort of abandons everything set up in the first volume. Yes, it deals with some of the same characters, but this feels like a side story. Walker Boh was given one task; this book that focuses on him has him dealing with a very different task. It also continues with very obvious characters. There is no development or change for anybody.

The book starts with the mystical King of the Silver River creating an elemental ‘daughter’ Quickening and sending her out on a quest. That quest will help Walker Boh accomplish his own, separate quest. Walker is one of the three people that Quickening needs to accomplish her goal. The others are the somewhat despondent Morgan Leah, who lost his magic sword in the last book, and Pe Ell. Pe Ell is introduced as an evil assassin. And that is what he is. The end, no moral. The book mostly seems an excuse for Brooks to play up the post-apocalyptic nature of the world, and to sow the seeds to connect Shannara to another of his book series. His best stuff is coming up with disgusting and unfathomable monsters that the heroes can’t fight. He does just enough of that here to keep the quest interesting, even if it feels inconsequential.