Vintage Shannara: The Black Elfstone by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks’ early Shannara novels had a tremendous impact on me as a young reader. (Say what you will about The Sword of Shannarait helped save epic fantasy.) While I was introduced to epic fantasy by J.R.R. Tolkien, it was Brooks who cemented my lifelong love for the genre. Those books, from Sword all the way to the conclusion of The Heritage of Shannara, were expansive and entertaining, chock full of new, interesting ideas (which, in a stroke of genius on Brooks’ part, piggybacked off of familiar elements from earlier volumes.) They swept me away and ignited my imagination with each new volume. Unfortunately, Brooks was unable to maintain momentum, and, in an effort to move onto a once-yearly publishing schedule, his novels began to slim down and started to shed their most redeeming qualities.

I remember the first time I was disappointed by a Terry Brooks novel. It was 2002, and Brooks had just released the conclusion to The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, Morgawr. (The Shannara series is built of smaller sub-series, usually consisting of three volumes each.) While the first volume was fresh and welcome departure from the darkness and vast scope of the previous quartet, by the conclusion it was flat and ineffective. Up to that point, I had come to expect each of Brooks’ sub-series to conclude in a way that felt like the world had been saved from greater peril or changed in some monumental way. The Elfstones of Shannara saw the rebirth of the Ellcrys, The Wishsong of Shannara introduced one of the series most iconic forms of magic, and The Heritage of Shannara introduced the science-friendly Federation, who is still a staple in the series. The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara introduced one of the series most important and fascinating characters, Grianne Ohmsford, but Morgawr left too many hanging threads, and its conflicts proved more intimate and personal than world-changing. I met Brooks on book tour that year, and asked him a few questions that cautiously circled around my disappointment, but even speaking to the man himself couldn’t reconcile the way I felt. It just wasn’t the type of story I wanted or expected from Shannara. Unfortunately, with only a few exceptions here and there (The Dark Legacy of Shannara trilogy in particular), I’ve been let down by these slimmer and less satisfying novels ever since.

Until now.

The Black Elfstone, the first volume of The Fall of Shannara series, is the start to an epic story that I’ve been waiting for since The Heritage of Shannara.

A large part of this is due to the scope of The Black Elfstone’s main plot, which is focused on the Druids and their response to a ghostly invading army. The Druids, bogged down by a corrupt leader and all the other perils of bureaucracy, flounder as this army tears through the Four Lands, leaving nothing but the dead in its wake. As the first act in a larger story, The Black Elfstone suggest that the coming story is larger and more complex than the rest of Brooks’ recent Shannara novels. There’s a sense of ambition and momentum in its pages that I wasn’t sure Brooks would find again, and it’s a lovely experience to be whisked away by remembrances of what made me fall in love with his work in the first place. The Black Elfstone blows the doors open on a story that pulls together many disparate strings from the series’ history, and also propels it forward towards its inevitable and much-awaited conclusion.

As expected from a Shannara novel, The Black Elfstone introduces readers to a handful of principal protagonists: Drisker Arc, Tarsha Kaynin, and Dar Leah. They’re all characters we’ve seen before in some form or another since The Sword of Shannara (respectively: druid, magical youth, earnest warrior.) While they don’t make remarkable strides towards breaking these stereotypes, they do play their roles well and propel the plot forward efficiently. Tarsha Kaynin may be The Black Elfstone‘s Shea Ohmsford (actually, wait, Shea Ohmsford is the Shea Ohmsford of The Black Elfstone, but, well…), but she has a complexity to her personality that sets her apart from Brooks’ other young heroes. She’s plucky, sure, but she’s also demanding and proactive, strong and frustrated by inaction. Despite being young and untrained, she stands up to Drisker Arc, and, when push comes to shove, chooses her own path rather than hitching her wagon to the Druid’s horse. Brooks has always been a socially-minded writer, so it’s not unusual for him to focus his stories on women, but Tarsha Kaynin is one of his best—a well-crafted young woman who creates her own space in the novel, rather than taking a back seat to the more experienced men.

Brooks doesn’t just tell us that Tarsha is strong and capable, he constantly proves it to the reader through her actions.”I don’t want to be protected,” she tells Drisker. “I want to be educated.” During a visit to Varfleet, a rough-and-tumble trade city, Drisker recognizes just how much he has underestimated the young magic-user:

When Drisker turned to see where she was, he found her pinned against the wall by two men in similar states of inebriation. One had his hand on her arm, the other in a less acceptable place. She was looking up at them as if petrified.

Uttering a silent oath, the Druid started back immediately. He hadn’t taken two steps before Tarsha put her knee into the groin of the man who was groping her, and then seized the wrist of the other man and gave it a vicious twist that left his arm dangling. Both men collapsed into the crowd, their cries loud and painful. Tarsha gave them a quick look and moved away. In seconds, she was back beside Drisker.

“What a cesspool,” she offered as they set off again.

This brings to the forefront something that’s bothered me not just in The Black Elfstone, but in the last several Shannara novels in general: the increased presence of sexual violence. Brooks’ earlier Shannara novels featured little to no sex, but lately he’s started using sexual violence or the threat of sexual violence as a plot point or as part of a character’s background. He’s tasteful and discreet (the above example being one of the more obvious moments), and features both male and female victims, but it often comes across as (a) unnecessary, and (b) an attempt to make the series feel a little tougher.

In the above scene, Brooks uses the encounter to show readers that Tarsha is tough and self-sufficient, but it also feels exploitive. Tarsha can be physically threatened in many ways that don’t involve two drunk men sexually assaulting her in an alley. At another point, while trying to infiltrate an assassin guild, Drisker creates a false story about Tarsha being raped and dumped by her former fiancé, against whom they’re seeking revenge (Chapter 21). Again, Brooks wields sexual violence as a crude bludgeon. Had Tarsha been a boy, Drisker would not have concocted such a story. The final inferred instance of sexual violence involves a mentally ill teenage boy and his abusive uncle. It’s raw and heartbreaking, but is an unnecessary addition to a relationship that is already believably broken. This isn’t A Song of Ice and Fire in its handling of sexual violence, but at the same time Brooks’ novels have always been a safe place for me as a reader, and I’m disappointed by his decision to change tack.

Such change, however, has been a hallmark of the Shannara series for its entire existence. While plots and characters always take on familiar silhouettes, the Four Lands, where the majority of the series takes place, is constantly in a state of flux.

The big news when Brooks first announced The Black Elfstone was that it would be the first of a four volume conclusion to the Shannara series. (There’s a whole lot more to this, as Brooks still plans to write more Shannara novels, just not ones that move the story forward chronologically.) Since the series’ inception, Brooks has been toying with the sometimes-cold, sometimes-hot war between magic and science. The Four Lands is actually post-apocalyptic America—only magic (and faerie races who hid themselves from humans) reemerged after humanity managed to nearly wipe itself from the planet. One of the series’ most unique aspects is the way Brooks has allowed the technology of the world to grow and evolve as time passes. The Four Lands of The Black Elfstone is very different than the Four Lands we were introduced to in The Sword of Shannara. What began as a fairly traditional pastoral fantasy world has become something more akin to Final Fantasy XII—magic and technology coexist, and people fly around in airships while still fighting with swords. Computer science doesn’t really exist, but mechanical and industrial science thrive. Brooks is intensely curious with how the more primal and spiritual aspects of magic interact with science and humanity’s desire for progress. The Black Elfstone is the first volley in the final war between science and magic, and if the novel’s pulse-pounding conclusion is any indication, readers are in for a larger and more complicated battle than anything the Four Lands has seen in the history of the series.

Early on, Drisker Arc, exiled High Druid, muses about the state of the world, and the bureaucratic failing of the Druid order he once led:

The world was changing once more, and the Druids were changing with it. Wasn’t that why he was here instead of at Paranor? New science was emerging, mostly from the Federation, forms unknown in the Old World that had come alive in the new. Forms that relied to a substantial extent on diapson crystals and the power that could be unleashed through skilled faceting and a harnessing of sunlight. There were airships and ground vehicles that utilized both. There were flash rips and thunderbolts, railguns and shredder slings all capable of releasing power that could shred and destroy enemies and their weapons. There were new communications devices that allowed conversations and visuals between people who were hundreds of miles away from each other. There were machines that could affect the weather, machines that could generate storms to provide rain for farmland. There were transports of such size they could carry entire armies. So much changing, but the Druids weren’t changing with it.

The magic was all they needed, they kept saying.

The magic was the only power that mattered.

It wasn’t necessary to employ these new sciences. They didn’t need to embrace a future others claimed to own.

They held the balance of power among the nations, and they would continue to do so forever.

Drisker Arc pursed his lips. Not if you tear yourselves and your order to pieces from within first.

Brooks is obsessed with the price of magic and its destructiveness—to the environment and to its wielders. It’s one of the core themes and narrative devices that Brooks relies on in every Shannara novel. Magic, like science, is not inherently evil, but it comes at great costs, and can be turned to evil ends. It changes people. Fuels war. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Brooks flipped a coin at the beginning of the Shannara series, and readers have wondered ever since whether it would come up science or magic. The Fall of Shannara series promises to answer that question, but the line between the two is becoming as blurred as the images on that rapidly flipping coin. Perhaps this is not a battle fought between magic and science, but between greed and benevolence. The Black Elfstone is laying a canvas that is broad enough to finally examine the relationship to the extent that it deserves.

As always, Brooks’ prose is workmanlike and inoffensive, more concerned with telling the story than painting a picture. It’s straightforwardness is admirable, especially in a genre known for being purple as a lavender field. As a result his novels are breezy, and the pages always fly by. One of my main criticisms of his previous novels is that they sometimes feel like plot outlines with a bit of meat and fat added on for flavour, but with The Black Elfstone he manages to find a nice balance between a fast-moving plot, and actually allowing the story room to breathe. He’s working to set up a huge, possibly catastrophic collision between his series’ two warring forces, so slowing things down works at both establishing the conflict between science and magic, and also breaking up the momentum of a quick moving narrative that could easily fly out of control.

The Black Elfstone doesn’t offer the complexity of a Brandon Sanderson novel, the ocean-deep world building of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, or the labyrinthine politics of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—but it doesn’t need any of that. Instead, it’s a Shannara novel through-and-through. A vintage Shannara novel. The Black Elfstone brings to mind the days when a young Terry Brooks saved epic fantasy, and proves that 40 years later, he’s still go it. It has epic scope, heroic characters, and so much heart. The series might be called The Fall of Shannara, but The Black Elfstone is proof that the Shannara series can still reach new heights.

The Black Elfstone is available June 13th from Del Rey.

Aidan Moher is the Hugo Award-winning founder of A Dribble of Ink, author of Tide of Shadows and Other Stories and “The Penelope Qingdom”, and regular contributor to Tor.com and the Barnes & Noble SF&F Blog. Aidan lives on Vancouver Island with his wife and daughter, but you can most easily find him on Twitter @adribbleofink.

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