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Review (sort of): The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks is not a bad writer.

Let's get that out of the way right from the get-go.

Yes, he should probably still be paying some kind of royalty to the Tolkien estate, but so should half of the people who write fantasy. Yes, his first book The Sword of Shannara was such an unabashed ripoff of The Lord of the Rings that it was even laughable to my middle school self when I first read it, but so what? Since then, Terry Brooks has become one of the most beloved writers in all of the fantasy genre, and even if his work isn't an exemplar of literary greatness, it's still consistently entertaining.

With all that said, let's get to talking about Brooks's second novel, The Elfstones of Shannara, which takes place some fifty or so years (I think?) after the events of Brooks's aforementioned first novel and is the tale of Wil Ohmsford, grandson to the hero of the previous book.

The plot of the novel (which was the basis for the pretty terrible, teen-targeted TV series, The Shannara Chronicles) is your standard quest/ fantasy fare: an ancient magical tree that kept a horde of demons at bay is dying, and Wil must guide the last of the elven "chosen" (a girl by the name of Amberle who also happens to be the granddaughter of the king) through the dangerous wilderness to seek out the "Bloodfire" which can bring said magical tree back to life.

I first read Terry Brooks's first seven Shannara books back when I was in middle school. Like many of Brooks's readers, I came to the books after reading Lord of the Rings and wanting more epic fantasy.

I recently picked up Elfstones for a second time – and for a very particular reason. I'd vaguely recalled Brooks really effectively pulling off the old horror trope where the monster picks off the good guys one at a time (think Alien, the first Predator movie, or pretty much every 80s slasher flick; I feel like there should be a name for this, but I couldn't find it on the internet). Because I wanted to use such a trope in my own current writing project, I decided to go back and read those specific parts of Elfstones. While I had only intended on re-reading parts of Elfstones, I ended up re-reading the whole thing. Though the book certainly has its flaws, there were a number of things about it that I thought were particularly well done.

Here, in my opinion, are the good and the bad of The Elfstones of Shannara:

The Good:

  • During Wil's journey, one of the demons known as the Reaper hunts Wil, Amberle, and their crew of hunters. While this section of the book was shorter than I remember, Brooks effectively create a sense of terror as the good guys are picked off one after another. In other words, the parts I remembered liking were still really good.

  • The book has a relatively complex and interesting love triangle between Wil, Amberle, and a Rover girl (basically this world's Gypsies) named Eretria. The relationships between these three are handled deftly and help the book pack a punch at the end.

  • Speaking of the ending, it was genuinely surprising while also be affecting and emotional.

  • The plot is far more original than that of its predecessor, although there are still a few LOTR derivatives that the book would be stronger without.

The Bad:

  • While Wil and Amberle are on their quest, Allanon (the Gandalf like character of the first Shannara trilogy) is tasked with defending the city of Arborlon against the masses of demons. This entire conceit is more than a little reminiscent of Gandalf's defense of Minas Tirith, but more than that, it's often just not written very well. In order to make the battle seem sufficiently epic, Brooks has it stretch over many days and so is forced to rely on exposition rather than scene work, which is ultimately ineffective. At times it feels like Brooks is trying to evoke epic-ness simply by telling us that the battles are epic, rather than showing us.

  • Towards the end of Wil and Amberle's quest there is a plot thread with two witch sisters that seems rather random and unnecessary to the overall story.

  • The plot, like with LOTR, has a deus ex machina in the form of flying birds. It wasn't good in Tolkien and it's not good here.

After re-reading Elfstones, I'm taking a break from Brooks, but figure I may re-visit The Heritage of Shannara series at some point, as I have fond memories of those books and they're often considered Brooks's best.



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