Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The Fall Begins

Like Charlie Brown running at the football, I've found myself once again reading the latest book by Terry Brooks. Despite disappointment in his last several efforts, I just can't give up this author I loved in my (less cultured) youth. And since all my new favorite fantasy authors don't actually seem to be in the business of publishing new books (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch), I'm inevitably drawn back to Brooks, who releases something every single year, like clockwork.

There was extra incentive this time around: this newest book, The Black Elfstone, kicks off a four-book series (The Fall of Shannara) which Terry Brooks has said will conclude his decades-running Shannara series, once and for all. I'm not exactly sure what an end to the series would look like -- it has consisted of multiple self-contained arcs over the years, and has always struck me as open-ended. But finding out what Brooks thinks is meant to cap it off, along with the actually having it capped off, was a tempting lure.

Obviously, no closure was to be had here in this book, what with three more on the way over the next three years. But many of the elements put into play were intriguing enough. This story involves a mysterious force of magical invaders who come storming into Brooks' Four Lands with seemingly unstoppable might and abilities. Awash in political intrigue, the Druid protectors of the land are ill-equipped to stand against them. Meanwhile (because there's always an Ohmsford descendant in these books), young siblings named Tarsha and Tavo are coming to grips with their emerging magical abilities. The older, Tavo, is unable to control his power, and is heading down a dark path of corruption and evil. His sister, Tarsha, is determined to help him, but must first learn about her own power before she can help him tame his.

There have been so many of these Shannara books that it might not be possible for Brooks to write something he hasn't written in some way before. The idea of a corrupt descendant of Shannara was explored with the Ilse Witch books; a massive invading horde and direct threat to the Druids' castle was part of the original volume, The Sword of Shannara, some four decades ago. But there's an urgency, intensity, and scale here that does make these elements feel different. "Sword" in particular dated from back when Brooks was just 95% aping J.R.R. Tolkien, so the invaders here feel different than an army of mindless orcs.

The writing itself is better than Brooks has managed of late. He continues to wedge in a romantic subplot without being able to compellingly craft it, and he has a tendency to repeat information unnecessarily (in identical ways) in consecutive chapters. But he's also willing to risk more here than he usually does, likely because this is his ending. His heroic Druid, Drisker Arc, does some decidedly unheroic things. There are moments of more intense violence and danger than he typically allows. He also invests in secondary characters more deeply than he has of late, giving it more weight when bad things happen to them.

I'd hardly say that Terry Brooks is at the top of the field, nor even at the top of his game. But this book was a step up for him. I was probably a bit ashamed of myself for wanting to read it, but wasn't mad at myself afterward for having done so. I'd grade it a B.

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