A belated review

Tom Simon belatedly writes a ruthless review of The Sword of Shannara only 30 years late:

I steered grimly clear of it, having a pretty clear idea what I would be letting myself in for if I read it, and in any case I could not afford to spend money on a cheap imitation of a book already occupying a place of honour in my library. But a friend gave me a dogeared copy of Sword (as I shall call it for short) for nothing, knowing that I wanted to write something about the fantasy boom of 1977, and a week or two ago I finally plodded through all 726 mind-numbing and turgid pages.

It is not, as it happens, the worst book I have ever read, or even the worst genre novel. That distinction belongs either to one of John Norman’s Gor books (I have read only one, and I think it was the first one, but the title has mercifully faded from my memory) or a trivial bit of naughty-naughty in science-fiction drag by one Jarrod Comstock. I have, as it happens, a book worse than either of these: Saga of Old City, by Gary Gygax. This is in fact the most cringingly awful waste of wood pulp I have ever seen offered under the rubric of fiction, but I cannot truthfully claim to have read it. It begins:

    The big, blackish rat sat upon the feast as a king upon his throne. Gord eyed the scene hungrily, his mouth watering at the sight of the trencher. Some incredibly wasteful person had discarded a slab of bread, soaked in rich meat juices and imbedded with succulent bits of things. It lay atop the garbage heap in the alleyway, and the rat sat peremptorily upon it. Gord stood nearby in jittery indecision — encouraged by hunger, restrained by fear. Then he decided to act. With a rapid motion he scooped up a pebble and flung it at the rodent. It struck the rat on its flank, but the creature didn’t run off as Gord had hoped. Instead, the rat bared its teeth viciously, voiced a horrid chittering noise, and advanced menacingly in Gord’s direction. With a frightened shriek, Gord leapt back, turned, and fled. Such a threat easily overcame the gnawing feeling in his stomach.

    ‘Shiteater!’ Gord screamed over his shoulder as he fled the huge rodent.

At this point I flung the book across the room. I don’t know how I acquired it; I think it was abandoned by its former owner; and the back cover is battered and torn in a way that suggests it had been thrown against walls before. I am tempted to compare it to the infamous Eye of Argon, but I find that the case will not lie. Gygax’s monstrosity has been at least superficially edited, robbing it of the obvious errors and typographic howlers that furnish Argon with at least half its charm. There are no lithe, opaque noses or scarlet emeralds in Gygax, though in fairness there is a city called Stoink. Jim Theis had to publish his story in an apazine; Gygax, as the owner of TSR, could force his employees to publish Saga of Old City and even had the clout to get it commercially distributed. I think it safe to say that neither work would ever have been accepted by an editor who was free to reject it.

The Sword of Shannara is not as bad as that. This is what is known as damning with faint praise.

But that does not mean, Mr. Shippey to the contrary, that there is any difficulty in identifying it as a bad book. It is of course a close copy of The Lord of the Rings, in the sense that a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa is a close copy of Leonardo’s masterpiece. Each artless blob of colour recognizably stands for an element superbly executed in the original. But it is also haunted by the ghost of quite a different sort of book, and it took me some time to work out just what it was. Leaving aside the stolen plot, what Sword really reminds me of is Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, as seen through the jaundiced eye of Mark Twain.

Read the whole thing.  It mercilessly dissects what I always remembered as a shameless ripoff of Tolkien, but I never realized precisely how incompetent it was.   And Simon pinpoints the utter absurdity of the basic plot in the first place.

A still more blatant stupidity is the inclusion of Shea Ohmsford in the
company sent to retrieve the Sword in the first place. We are told that
the Sword has the power to destroy the Warlock Lord, and that only Shea
can use it. Every other person who could possibly wield it has been
systematically hunted down and killed, and the Skull Bearers (=Nazgûl)
have already tried to kill Shea once. A sane person would lock Shea up
in the remotest and most impenetrable fortress in the country, with an
army ringed round to protect him, rather than let him go anywhere near
the forces of the Warlock Lord. Instead he is sent along as one of the
eight companions on the quest to recover the Sword from Paranor. Shea
has no magic to speak of, no skill with weapons, no ability as an
outdoorsman, nothing that would make him even remotely useful to such an
expedition. Anybody can handle the Sword; anybody could go and
fetch it and bring it back to him; but no, he must go along himself,
exposing the quest to certain ruin and the whole world to defeat and
devastation if he is captured.

The Sword of Shannara did have one thing going for it, however.  Being a shameless ripoff of Tolkien, it was semi-readable, which is more than one can say for the subsequent books in the series.  I tried three times to read the next book, and never managed to make it as far as chapter three.