The Elfstones of Shannara: Actually refreshing for today, and for when it was written

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks fantasy book reviewsThe Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

I’ve read plenty of Terry Brooks‘s fantasy novels, but among his earliest works I’ve only ever completed The Wishsong of Shannara. But with news of a television adaptation of The Elfstones of Shannara scheduled to air in 2016, I figured now was as good a time as any to delve into his backlog — and it’s interesting to see how he’s developed as a writer since then.

As the direct sequel to The Sword of Shannara, the story centres on the grandson of the previous novel’s protagonist: Wil Ohmsford, grandson of Shea Ohmsford. He’s approached by the Druid Allanon with a task only he can accomplish — use the three magical Elfstones in the defence of a young Elf girl with a mission of her own set before her.

For thousands of years a magical tree known as the Ellcrys has held back hordes of Demons from overrunning the earth — but now the tree is dying. Amberle is a young Elf chosen by the Ellcrys to undertake a dangerous quest that might renew the magic that holds the barrier between worlds in place, but she cannot do it alone.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs Wil and Amberle begin their arduous journey to the Wilderun, Allanon and the Royal Family of the Elves prepare for the onslaught of Demons that are marching upon the City of Arborlon, led by the terrifying figure of the Dagda Mor.

It’s important to note that as one of the earliest mainstream fantasy authors, quite a lot about Brooks’s first trilogy feels cliché by today’s standards. The usual fantasy trappings are in place: the seedy tavern, the ambush in the gorge, the city under siege, the beautiful elfish palace, as well as a very black-and-white treatment of good and evil. The heroes are stalwart and true, while the demons are mindlessly destructive. There’s little in the way of moral ambiguity, only physical struggles against the odds.

And yet in a post-Game of Thrones world, I found it rather refreshing to read a story in which the sides were so clearly delineated. These are the days of the anti-villain, but sometimes it’s nice to get a solid black-hearted demon whose only motivation is to destroy our protagonists. Brooks is very clear in setting up the stakes and the players, as well as what each character is capable of.

Although his previous book was heavily influenced by the plot of Tolkien‘s THE LORD OF THE RINGS, what Brooks brought to the genre was to drop Tolkien’s intricate world-building in favour of pure story. With The Elfstones of Shannara, he also takes the time to give depth to his characters — as well as the introduction of two female characters who are just as involved in the action as the men (and back in 1982, this was a revelation). That said, this early stage of his career there’s a tendency to waffle a bit, as seen below:

His short-sightedness had taken away their one slim chance of escape. He had been so concerned with what they had been running from that he had forgotten to consider what they had been running into. They were not going to escape at all. They would be caught; they would be killed. It was his fault. He had done this to them.

It takes six sentences to convey what could easily be said in one, leading me to skim-read several paragraphs. And yet I think Brooks’s contribution to the fantasy genre has been underestimated in recent years. Whatever its faults, The Sword of Shannara was the first high fantasy novel to become a mainstream bestseller, proving to the publishing industry that there was a market for the genre. Since then he’s written ten sub-series of SHANNARA-related novels, made up of trilogies and quartets, all set in the same continuity, and with as much emphasis on female characters as the male ones (trust me, as a teenage girl growing up with fantasy fiction, this was a big deal).

With the upcoming The Shannara Chronicles on MTV, it’s as good a time as any to revisit Terry Brooks’s long-running fantasy series.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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  1. I’m glad that you enjoyed it and I’m interested in the idea of an adaptation. This is a series I could never warm up to; it just made me want to dig out my Tolkien and re-read.

    They are certainly popular, though.

  2. Kevin S. /

    My son got me this book for my birthday but I haven’t read The Sword of Shannara yet. Do I need to go back and read it to understand this book?? And why does it say Book One on the cover??

    • Rebecca /

      You definitely don’t have to read The Sword of Shannara to understand this one – it’s self-contained.

      As to why it’s got Book One on the cover, I’ve no idea. Is it a television tie-in? Because the MTV series completely skipped “Sword” in order to adapt “Elfstones”, in which case someone at the publishing house may have accidentally thought it was book one.

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