Book Review: “The Black Elfstone”(Book 1 of “The Fall of Shannara”) by Terry Brooks

It’s a rare thing that I finish a book in three days, but that is just what happened with fantasy maestro Terry Brooks’ most recent book The Black Elfstone, the first in a planned tetralogy titled The Fall of Shannara. Set roughly two hundred years after the loosely connected Defenders of Shannara series,  this novel sees the Four Lands under assault from a mysterious invader, one that possesses a form of magic that stymies even the Druids. These mysterious invaders, led by a powerful young woman, overcome anyone who stand in their path, including a Druid delegation. As a result, they threaten the very stability and order of the entire Four Lands.

The exiled Ard Rhys Drisker Arc, one of the story’s four protagonists, gradually finds himself drawn into this conflict. At the same time, he also takes on an apprentice in the form of Tarsha Kaynin, a young woman blessed (or cursed) with the power of the wishsong, who desperately wishes to tame its power so that she can save her afflicted elder brother Tavo. Meanwhile, the High Druid’s Blade Dar Leah has to contend with a Druid order that appears poised on the brink of chaos. All of them, in one way or another, will clearly be drawn into a conflict that might well bring to an end the entire world that they have so far taken for granted.

The pacing in this new novel is as breakneck as anything that Brooks has written, and it’s hard not to be swept up in the pace of the events unfolding. While we are only given tantalizing glimpses of the invaders that seem poised to conquer the entire Four Lands–and while the many schemes and plots, particularly those undertaken by the Druids, are still only half-glimpsed–that only makes the novel that much more tantalizing. Brooks has always been a master at plotting, and this novel proves to be no exception. While some might complain that he always ends his books on a cliffhanger, I personally find that that heightens the anticipation for the next novel (at least we don’t have to wait more than a year for the next installment).

Some have criticized Brooks’ recent work for being repetitive, but I tend to see this as a deliberate attempt on his part to show the ways in which history, and those caught up in it, often can’t help but repeat the mistakes that came before. This is most clear with the Druids, who once again seem so entangled in their internal squabbles and power-plays that they can’t see the larger threat that may sweep them away in its wake until it is too late. The ongoing tale of the Shannara bloodline reveals the brutally cyclical nature of history. Just as humankind seems to have lifted itself out of its own petty squabbles and achieved some measure of stability, its own folly and desire for destruction seems to plunge it right back into its darker nature.

While the Shannara books have always been marked by a fair measure of violence, Brooks looks to be striking out on some new territory here, showing us that the Four Lands have become an increasingly dangerous and unstable place. The Elves have retreated, once again, into their own enclaves, content to let the rest of the world succumb to its own folly. The border city of Varfleet is as seedy as ever, and there are entire guilds devoted to nothing but the taking of human life. This is not a world for the faint of heart.

Given this, it’s hardly surprising that this kind of world produces some very broken and troubled characters, chief among them Tarsha’s brother Tavo. Unlike his sister, for whom the wishsong is a blessing, for him it is a curse, a titanic force that he cannot control and that slowly drives him mad with rage and bloodlust. While they are disturbing, the chapters devoted to his perspective are some of the most compelling in the entire novel. He is a person who is fundamentally shattered in his psychology, misunderstood by his parents and tormented by practically anyone else. Is it any wonder that, in his fractured state, he should see his sister as his enemy? We don’t know yet what his part will be in the climax, but my guess is it won’t be pretty. I do hope, though, that he is offered at least a measure of salvation or redemption.

The writing here is lean, and Brooks tends to not spend too much time describing meals or clothing (a foible that sometimes bogs down otherwise quite compelling works of fantasy). However, no one has quite the ability to describe a landscape as he does, and the Four Lands remains one of the most exquisitely described landscapes in the history of epic fantasy. These are lands that have outlasted many of the characters that we have grown to know and love, and so there is something both comfortingly familiar and yet strange about them.

While I’m sad that Shannara is coming to a chronological end, I’m glad that Brooks is doing it on his own terms, and I am supremely glad that it is off to such a strong and stirring start. As someone who has grown increasingly irritated with George R.R. Martin’s chronic inability to produce a volume in anything resembling a reliable manner (and as someone who has been disappointed with the declining quality), I find Brooks reliability to be a great boon. What’s more, he has also stated that this won’t be the end of Shannara altogether, as there are still several bits of history that he may flesh out. Presumably, this means that we may yet get to see the formation of the First Druid Council under the Elf Galaphile, along with a number of other stories.

Still, I know that I will be shedding more than a few tears as I make my way through this chronological end of one of epic fantasy’s greatest sagas.

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