Shannara’s End Approaches in The Stiehl Assassin

Terry Brooks’s Shannara series is legendary.

In the ’70s, a young Brooks built upon the foundation laid by J.R.R. Tolkien, Katherine Kurtz, and Michael Moorcock and revitalized epic fantasy with the release of The Sword of Shannara—reintroducing the genre to a mass audience and finding immense commercial success.

Where writers like Moorcock and Stephen R. Donaldson deconstructed and subverted Tolkien’s pastiche, Brooks leaned hard into the idea of young heroes, journeys of self discovery, and good versus evil, and over the past forty years, Shannara has become a most ubiquitous epic fantasy. Since 2000, Brooks has published a Shannara novel every year (with the exception of 2009), providing fans with one of the most reliable and consistent reading experiences in the genre.

The Shannara series is split into nearly a dozen smaller standalone novels and multivolume series, each telling a self-contained narrative within a larger multi-generational epic about the clash between magic and science. Since the events of The Sword of Shannara, the series has covered nearly 3,000 years worth of history, and readers have had the unique pleasure of watching the Four Lands transform from a pastoral, faux-medieval fantasyland into a sprawling, multinational continent with airships dotting the skies, soldiers who wield gun-like energy weapons, and science-driven progress moving humanity closer and closer to the pre-Great War era. Few authors have tackled the social, political, and scientific evolution of a fantasy world as thoroughly as Brooks.A few years ago, Brooks announced that he was working toward the end of Shannara—chronologically anyway. He’ll still write Shannara novels, but they’ll take place during the unexplored periods of the series’ vast timeline, rather than moving things forward into the future. From hints in the early books to more explicit development in later novels, Shannara has always been about the inevitable confrontation between science and magic. The Fall of Shannara promises an end, once and for all revealing whether the Four Lands will repeat their forebears’s mistakes, or move past them toward something greater.

The Black Elfstone, the first of four volumes in the Shannara finale, is a rip-roaring adventure that perfectly melds Brooks’s older, more epic style with his modern themes and blazing pace. It introduces a new threat to the Four Lands: the invading Skaar army, whose mysterious magic appeared insurmountable, led by a mysterious, powerful woman named Ajin d’Amphere. Opposite the Skaar, struggling to find a balance between the invading army and the notoriously magic-intolerant Federation, is Drisker Arc, a reluctant Druid (a Brooks staple), a young woman born with wishsong magic (another Brooks staple), and a brave warrior with a magic sword (another Brooks staple) whose sole purpose is to protect the Druid order from its enemies. The Skaar Invasion is a worthy follow-up, expanding on the scope and epic promises of the first volume in satisfying and unexpected ways.

Now arrives The Stiehl Assassin, the third and penultimate volume in the series’ timeline. Like its predecessors, it feels suitably broad and epic—the Four Lands and beyond seem larger than ever before. The implications of the clash between the Four Lands’s defenders, the invading Skaar, and an unexpected adversary dredged up from the series’ past feel more consequential than anything Brooks has written since The Heritage of Shannara in the early ’90s.

Drisker Arc has returned Paranor to the Four Lands. His adversary, a clever Druid named Clizia Porse, seeks an alliance with the Skaar while plotting Drisker’s downfall, with the infamous Stiehl—a dagger with the magical ability to cut through any object and kill any living thing—clutched in her bloody fist. Tarsha Kaynin seeks redemption and healing for her brother Tavo. Meanwhile, Darcon Leah and Ajin d’Amphere continue their dance on opposite sides of the world-changing conflict.

Reading above, its easy to see all of Brooks favorite building blocks and character archetypes are present in The Stiehl Assassin. The familiarity won’t surprise longtime readers, but Brooks deserves credit for being unafraid to fill archetypal roles with unlikely characters. Here, the titular assassin is an old woman, while the leader of the invading army is a young woman, her force divided between male and female soldiers. Brooks has always done a good job of filling his background characters with people of both genders—though he has yet to reach beyond the gender binary—and Drisker’s most powerful antagonist is an ambitious woman with magic beyond reckoning.

As a whole, The Fall of Shannara is about an invasion by a foreign enemy, and it feels like a missed opportunity that Brooks didn’t choose to introduce a more interesting and diverse culture to the Four Lands. The Skaar are a white, Eurocentric nation not much different from the Federation they’re fighting. They even come from a continent called Eurodia. Shannara has always featured various races, but its Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, and Gnomes have often felt like little more than humans with makeup when it comes to their behavior, culture, and socio-political makeup. The Skaar could have been an opportunity to introduce something entirely new—perhaps drawing inspiration from one of humanity’s many under-utilized cultures.

The Stiehl Assassin might be the penultimate Shannara volume—with all the expected portentous plot developments and promises of what’s to come—but it also does an excellent job of exploring the series’s long history, bringing familiar, well-loved elements to the foreground in interesting ways. Brooks has been ever-keen on exploring the Four Lands’s mythology and history, often rearranging pieces in different ways to see how they play off each other, but rarely so effectively as here. It’s a reward for longtime readers, and a carrot for new readers, who are invited to delve into the older volumes to discover the origins of the historic talismans, characters, and events that ripple throughout the entire series.

The Stiehl Assassin is one of Brooks’s more overtly political novels. As the Skaar look for a new home in the Four Lands, Brooks continues to directly tackle issues like climate change and the way societies often meet those fleeing their deadly homelands with walls and armies instead of open arms and aid. More subtly, he skewers corruption in government, colonization, and how even those in positions of authority are undermined by the nations they serve.

By the end of The Stiehl Assassin, the stage is set for a conclusion larger and more epic than anything readers have seen from Brooks in over two decades. It’s a return to his former style—a large story of conflict affecting the entirety of the Four Lands. Brooks filled the first two volumes of The Fall of Shannara with several seemingly unrelated plot threads, and it’s immensely satisfying to see them collide in The Stiehl Assassin, establishing sky high stakes for the novel that will bring an end to the decades-long Shannara series.

The Stiehl Assassin is available now in a signed edition from Barnes & Noble. 

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