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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TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Safehold”

So, here we are. The penultimate episode of The Shannara Chronicles has dawned, and it was definitely one of the finest episodes (if not the finest) that the series has produced so far. In this episode, the brave fellowship of young people finally make their way to Safehold and the Bloodfire, while Allanon ensures that Ander at last takes the throne that is rightfully his. And, of course, the last leaf at last falls from the Ellcrys, ensuring that the Dagda Mor is now free to march on Arborlon with his demon army at his back.

This episode had a lot of gems for those fans of Brooks’ novels. Those who have read the entirety of his oeuvre recognize in the rhetoric about the children of the armageddon (of which Eretria is a descendant) the Genesis of Shannara trilogy which revealed that the world of the Four Lands is indeed our world in the distant future. Furthermore, the emphasis on Eretria’s blood–it ultimately unlocks the Bloodfire–suggests that it may be her heritage, as much as Wil’s, that will influence the fate of her children and their many descendants.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This series has really done wonders bringing Eretria to magnificent life. While she was certainly a feisty and compelling character in the original novel, Ivana Banquero manages to convey both her phenomenal strength and her intimate vulnerability. Even now, as they near the end of the quest, she still feels the pangs of love for Wil (which she believes are not reciprocated), and it is this deep, and very human, need for love and acceptance that grants her character such depth.

And how amazing was it that we (we being Brooks’s faithful readers) finally have a solution to the mystery of Safehold’s location. We can now say with certainty that it is in the ruins of San Francisco/Oakland (Wil uses a stone to scratch in the missing letters on an old street sign). This is a bit of a mixed blessing, as it clears up one of the most enduring mysteries of Brooks’s world, and yet there is something a bit bittersweet about learning the exact location of this mysterious form. Fortunately, the series also leaves a great many questions unanswered (we still don’t know exactly what the Bloodfire is, for example, nor do we know why it’s located in the ruins of San Francisco).

If there was one thing I did not particularly like about this episode, ti was the way in which the witch sisters Morag and Mallenroh appeared. They were always one of my favourite parts about the novel, precisely because we knew so little about them and yet they seemed like such an integral part of the world Brooks had created. They were, according to the mythos, part of a coven, and they had long existed in a stalemate of hatred. None of that complex backstory made its way into the adaptation, alas, with the two witches appearing as straightforward guardians of the Bloodfire.

That minor quibble aside, this episode managed to bring out the very best that this series has to offer. We got some politics, the fulfillment (almost) of the quest, and the climactic death of the Ellcrys. This is the kind of storytelling that the series should have focused on all along. Indeed, I would argue that it really does best dramatically when it stays true to the epic roots from which it so clearly draws. With this kind of emphasis, it gives the characters, and their arcs, more depth and heft than they have gained (up until this episode, that is). Hopefully, this is a lesson that the writers will take into account if the series is granted another season by the powers that be.

Given the strength of this episode, I can say without a doubt that I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion of this first season. I will also admit that I am fervently hoping that it will be renewed for a second season. With the vast tapestry of Brooks’s work to draw on, especially the intergenerational component, the series could easily fit into the anthology model that has become increasingly popular and common in the cable media sphere.

Are you listening, MTV?

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Utopia”

Events on The Shannara Chronicles continue to speed forward in “Utopia,” as Amberle and Wil set out to save Eretria from the clutches of the Elf-hunters and from a group of peace-seeking humans in a settlement called Utopia. Meanwhile, Ander must finally make the choice of whether to become the king that the Elves need, while Allanon braces for his final confrontation with the Dagda Mor.

While Wil and Amberle are supposedly the narrative and character center points of this series, this episode showed why both Eretria and Ander have always threatened to steal the show. Both are broken in their own way, she from the cruel and heartless treatment from her “father” Cephelo and he from the fact that he is the youngest, and most disappointing son of an illustrious dynasty. Now, they both have opportunities and risks to face. She ultimately has to decide whether she will throw her lot in with Wil and Amberle or stay with the (ultimately corrupt) denizens of Utopia. He must decide whether he will take up the mantle of kingship that was never meant to be his. In many ways, their drama seems to be much more compelling than that of Amberle and Wil, and while this may seem like a good thing, I’m not entirely sure it’s what the series intended.

In many ways, it’s hard to believe that we’ve almost reached the ending of this first (but hopefully not last) season of The Shannara Chronicles. We haven’t even attained the Bloodfire yet, and the Demons have yet to launch their all-out assault on Arborlon, and yet there are only two episodes left until the season is over. It seems like the series has opted to focus (understandably, given the way in which it conceptualizes its target demographic), on the personal rather than the epic scope. Unfortunately, this has the effect of sometimes emptying out the larger scale drama of its significance. This is not to say that the epic and the personal cannot be intertwined, only that the series has not been terribly effective at bringing them together.

While I liked the introduction of the sarcastically titled city of Utopia, this again felt like a plot twist too quickly resolved to have any lasting impact. We’re briefly introduced to yet another set of vaguely malicious and unscrupulous characters, only to have them consumed by Trolls at the end of the episode. While this sort of structure works to keep each episode moving along, it doesn’t really add up to anything, and the disappearance of the Demons from the narrative only exacerbates this narrative problem.

Speaking of Trolls…I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the series’ treatment of them. In the novels, the Trolls, while primitive in some respects, do have a solid social structure, and they don’t go about hunting and eating Elves. Given that, I’m not sure that the series will ever be able to do anything truly meaningful with them, but I could be wrong. Given the substantial role that Trolls play in several of Brooks’s later works, I sincerely hope that they give this particular Race more development in future seasons.

This was, all in all, a very satisfying episode, though I do worry that the last two episodes are going to feel rushed and therefore unsatisfying. Hopefully, should the series get a second season, the writers will develop a better sense of pacing and characterization, so that we don’t spend so much time in trite (and not very compelling) drama and move into the truly interesting bits at the heart of Brooks’s epic vision.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles”: “Breakline”

Now that The Shannara Chronicles has finally discovered the meaning of momentum, things are happening at a pretty good clip. In this episode, the company is scattered (after their encounter with the Reaper). Amberle and Eretria discover a long-lost remnant of the Old World, while Wil gets assistance from Perk, a Roc-riding Elf. Meanwhile, Arion and Ander confront the Dagda Mor. Though Allanon arrives, fully healed, in time to save the younger prince, the elder son is killed by the Demon lord. Utterly bereft, Ander nevertheless manages to kill the Changeling. After a deadly encounter with the Elf-hunters, Amberle is saved by Wil, while Eretria falls into their hands.

The addition of Elf-hunters seemed a bit ham-handed, and the idea of them cutting off Elf ears in order to sell them to Gnomes verges on the silly. However, I’ve begun to notice that the series, understandably, has taken some of the larger threats portrayed in Brooks’s novel and channeled them into more human obstructions. While they don’t always pan out as well as the writers no doubt thought they would (the obvious sexual tension between Eretria and the Elf-hunter Zora seems designed to titillate more than add nunace to Eretria’s character), they are understandable responses to a limited budget.

Speaking of Eretria…she is slowly emerging as the most compelling and complexly drawn of the three young leads. She’s a broken person, and this quest seems to hold out the promise that she might somehow be able to put herself back together again. Those who have read the books know how her story ends up, but for those who don’t…well, I won’t give it away. I will say that the series does a great job of making us care about her, as well as inspiring in us a wish and a desire that she will somehow find happiness, whether or not that ends up being with Wil (who, by the way, didn’t seem to have much to do in this episode).

The revelation of the party hall was a nice touch, both appealing to the show’s target audience and also making clear the essentially ephemeral nature of both youth and human accomplishment more generally. It is one of the few genuinely reflective moments in the series so far, in which we as viewers are led to experience, at least for a moment, an almost terrifying sense of our own impending destruction. Could it actually be that we are trembling on the threshold of doom, all unknowing? It’s a frightening question, and I give the show a lot of credit for daring to ask it.

I was immensely pleased with Allanon’s healing scene, which allowed us a glimpse of his father and mentor Bremen. While not exactly as I imagined him, he is nevertheless a stern and imposing presence, and it is clear that he continues to exert a powerful (one might even say inexorable) force on Allanon’s life. While the younger Druid seems to feel overwhelmed by his burdens and by the refusal of those in the Four Lands to heed his warnings, Bremen reminds him that that is part of what it means to serve.

And I am also glad to see the Changeling storyline finally resolved and to finally get Arion out of the way. Ander is one of the series’ more fully-fleshed characters, and it will be interesting to see him change and develop into a king in his own right. After all, he now has the unenviable burden of overseeing the defense of the Elves and their homeland against the horde that is preparing to sweep down upon them.

All in all, I found this to be the most satisfying episode so far. There was a bit of everything on offer, and it did a great deal to not only move the plot forward, but also show us what the show can do when it really hits its stride. Let’s just hope they can keep that momentum going for the next three episodes.

TV Review: “The Shannara Chronicles:” “Pykon”

Note:  Spoilers for the episode follow.

In the most recent episode of The Shannara Chronicles, the small company heading toward the Bloodfire confronts a pair of deranged recluses in a mountain fortress, Allanon struggles with both the seer and the increasing power of the Dagda Mor, and Ander finally sees for himself the enormous forces gathered to sweep across the Westland.

While I really, truly do like this show, I often find myself frustrated with the choices it makes in terms of narrative and dramatic construction. While I’m totally okay with changes being made to the show for the sake of clarity and increased drama, it doesn’t make any sense to me why they would introduce characters that do not appear in the books (in this case, the deranged recluse and his mentally scarred daughter), other than to act as mere titillation. After all, they are both dead by the end of the episode, so one is left wondering:  what, exactly, was the point of what just transpired? I can’t help thinking that the narrative space taken up by this rather superfluous storyline would have been better used to beef up some of the other plot threads that are, in the main, infinitely more interesting.

However, this episode did give us a little more information about Eritrea, who makes an attempt at seduction of Amberle. While I’m sure some will read this as mere pandering, I actually think it adds a layer of complexity to her. She is gradually emerging as a young woman scarred from the years under Cephelo’s cruel and uncaring hand, and as such she wants to find affection wherever she can. This scene also sets the stage for an emerging dynamic among the three leads. No matter what happens, it’s almost a certainty that at least one person is going to end up getting very hurt.

I am also increasingly impressed by the growing relationship between Ander and the Gnome Slanter. Although Slanter doesn’t actually enter the Brooks’ universe until the book The Wishsong of Shannara, it’s actually a little nice to see him here in this narrative. He actually seems to be a fairly complex and contradictory character. Of course, it remains to be seen in what ways his arc will continue to develop, though we can hope that he will take a leading role in the fight against the demons.

Of course, the biggest shock of the night was the seeming death of Allanon. The Changeling continues to sow chaos throughout the royal palace and beyond. I’m still not entirely sold on this particular storyline, as it seems to raise more questions and narrative challenges than it solves, but I suppose I just have to have hope that the writers have a larger game plan in mind. Though Allanon didn’t get a great deal of air time in this episode, I am absolutely confident that he will come to the fore again as the final confrontation with the Dagda Mor and his armies at last comes to pass.

So, was this a great episode? No. However, it did lay the groundwork for what is to come, and I sincerely hope that the writers finally figure out what they are doing and finally get to the meat of the story they want to tell.